Ashes 2013-14: Geoff Miller bows out after era of selecting success still putting the players first

 

Geoff Miller recalls with a rueful smile how he heard about the end of his Test career. It was the summer of 1984, West Indies were in town and doing dreadful things to the psyches of English cricketers.

"I found out I had been left out of the England side by the captain not inviting me to his barbecue on the rest day because I wasn't going to be playing," he said. "But I knew at the time it was time for my international career to come to an end."

It was how they handled human relations in those days. David Gower was the captain but it probably could have been anyone else. Miller had been part of the side which was hustled to improbable defeat at Lord's in the second Test when West Indies made 344 for 1 in 66 overs and the off-spinner took 0 for 45 in 11. It did not deserve an undercooked sausage.

It was no doubt that valedictory treatment that prompted Miller to ensure he brought a different approach to the task of picking and dropping players. At the end of this series he will step down after six years as the national selector, a fancy title for what is still in effect the chairman of selectors. In all, he has been a selector for 14 years, the first eight under David Graveney.

"I drive about 60,000 miles a year watching cricket and having conversations," he said as he sat in the team hotel in Brisbane, anticipating his final series. "There are two types of phone call. The good ones to say someone has been selected and the difficult ones to tell someone they've been left out and make arrangements to go to see them and explain why. That's the proper way of doing it and it was the way I'd like it to have been done when I played."

Miller was a versatile spinning all-rounder, perhaps short of the highest class but good enough to play 34 Tests and average in the mid-20s with the bat and a little more than 30 with the ball. His most fruitful period was in Australia in 1978-79 when he took 23 wickets in the series in a sterling 5-1 victory, albeit against opponents weakened by defections to World Series Cricket.

No spinner in modern times has been so effective in Australia. Wilfred Rhodes took 30 in 1903-04 and Jack "Farmer" White 25 in 1928-29 but it has never been easy for the English slow bowler here. Australia pride themselves on slugging the spinners. They intend to make life tough for Graeme Swann in the next seven weeks.

Miller was perhaps a surprising choice when he first joined the selection panel in 1999. But he took to the role, always remembering what it was like when he played. He did not apply for the newly created position of national selector in 2007 but was invited by the managing director of England cricket, Hugh Morris, to put his name forward.

Morris is also going soon, though the pair did not confer on their departures. Clearly, Miller could have stayed for as a long as he wished. England have never been more consistently successful and he is plainly proud of assembling a team which has resilience under pressure.

"I just think it is the right time," he said. "We're in a very strong position and have good people working for us. It's rolling nicely. Everything has its time."

Not every selection leads to an international career of unparalleled achievement. This is as it should be since it would take all the fun out of it otherwise. Still, the most glaring choice of Miller's tenure was that of Darren Pattinson against South Africa at Leeds in 2008, a fast bowler who had been born in Grimsby but lived most of his life in Australia.

Since he was playing for Nottinghamshire at the time on his British passport he was titularly available for England and, lo and behold, on the basis of a few early-season wickets was propelled into the Test team. Miller can still not quite admit that it might have been wrong.

"What I will say on any selection is that there's a logic and reason behind the decision and the reason will be right," he said. "That logic was right. There are certain aspects of that selection which I put my hands up to and say I didn't do a full analysis of him, but at the time the logic behind why he was playing was absolutely right." Pattinson never played another Test; his younger brother, James, now plays for Australia.

That was the nub of Miller the selector: straight, careful not to express an opinion, at odds with the genial after-dinner speaker who is in constant demand on the cricket club circuit. It is possible that he may update the repertoire by including some tales from the selection room. But he would never be disloyal to the players. "I do self-deprecation, not deprecation of others," he said.

He will stay until the eve of the second Test and drift off into the after-dinner sunset. "I'm quietly confident about the Ashes. We've created a very good unit who are very difficult to beat. It's been said many times but we didn't play to our maximum potential in England and still won 3-0. These lads are keen to create history and they just like winning games." It would be a fitting tribute to the chairman of selectors.

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