The man with five years to turn England into the best cricket team in the world

The Hugh Morris interview: From village green to Test arena, from schoolyard to Marsh's Academy, the buck stops here. By Stephen Brenkley
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Tougher targets might have been set for Hugh Morris, though only skiing down Everest with a carnation between his teeth, reciting the entire works of Shakespeare backwards, ending world hunger and laying the patio in his back garden by 7pm this evening are the sort of things that spring immediately to mind.

The task with which Morris has actually been charged, patio apart, is making England the best cricket team in the world. By 2007. Considering that this is only five years hence, that they have not won any of their past four Test series and only one of their most recent five one-day rubbers, and last week let slip a 1-0 lead in the final Test against New Zealand, he could be up against it.

Nobody doubts that England have improved significantly, but evidence of global domination has been scarce. As performance director of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Morris has to implement a strategy which will ensure that they do not take a step backwards moments after taking one forwards. In short, the former long-serving Glamorgan and shorter-serving England opening batsman can make or break the game in this country.

"It's a tall order to make it by 2007," he said last week. "We talked about it long and hard and we wanted to set ourselves realistic but tough goals. We have a series of targets but ultimately it's all got to be leading to making England the number one in the world. All roads lead to that. I think we've got a chance, I've seen a lot of progress. England is the barometer that affects everything in cricket."

No wild claims then, and he knew, as everybody else did, that the defeat by the Kiwis which levelled the series and pushed England to fifth place in the World Test Championship table was a blow that the team and the English game could have done without. Morris has to take a wider view of cricket and its place, devise a foolproof plan to try to ensure that he stays on something like a course heading in the right direction. He might not coach the England team, but everything he does is directed to their cause.

Morris took last week off for the patio – he broke off from it for this interview – but it is a fair bet that the placing of every flag was accompanied by thoughts of propelling England to supremacy. If he and the game make it, the key component may well come to be seen as the National Academy. Longer than an elephant in gestation, it finally arrived last autumn.

Considering the wait, it could hardly have had a more heartening inauguration. Morris managed to recruit as the Academy's first director Rodney Marsh, legendary Test cricketer and much-lauded head of the equally vaunted Australian Academy. The first intake spent much of the winter with Marsh in Adelaide, home of the Aussie establishment. By next year, England will have their own £3.25 million permanent Academy at Loughborough University. Architects were engaged last week, the first recruits will be there in October 2003.

"The Academy was absolutely vital," said Morris. "It's fundamental when you look at other sports and what the Australians have done. We must make sure over a period of time that it's not just a Formula One pitstop where they go for six months of the year and suddenly they're off on their own. It's got fundamentally to change their behaviour. But we have to nurture them. There has to be a strong domestic competition for them.

"The proof will arrive over the next few years, but it's probably the most important single initiative we've put into place. It's where the diamonds will be polished. I was captain of three England A tours and I loved them, and the benefit of going overseas was enormous for all of us. But ultimately all we were doing was picking 14 or 15 players to go away and win matches for seven weeks. That's not going to change behaviour fundamentally."

Marsh has already demonstrated that he was a truly inspired signing. In Morris's wildest dreams – and he must have plenty of those, bearing in mind what is expected of him – he did not consider the great Australian for the job. "I had first gone to Australia to see him three years ago. It was all part of the process. I spent a little bit of time with Steve Heighway at the Liverpool Football Academy and he was very helpful. I met Howard Wilkinson of the Football Association. I regularly still meet with my opposite numbers in rugby. I was amazed at how open Rod was.

"When I went back there last July we had started the recruitment campaign for the Academy and I asked him if he could think of anybody in Australia who would be a suitable candidate as director. He said: 'R W Marsh'."

Thus knocked down with a feather, Morris opened negotiations immediately. "Whoever it was had to be a fairly rare beast, somebody hugely respected in the game domestically and internationally, somebody used to developing élite talent. When you start whittling it down like that, there aren't many people."

Morris knew in the first week he had the right man. Marsh met his charges at Sandhurst for a pre-Adelaide get-together. In his opening address he told them that he understood the chances of scooping a Lottery jackpot in Britain were 14 million to one. He was there to make international cricketers of them, give them an opportunity to play for England for 10 years. "If you do that," said Marsh, "you'll be a millionaire. We're giving you a 14 to one chance." The reports back from the first weeks of the Academy spoke of a gruelling fitness regime which involved heading for the gym at 6.30am and staying there. Cricket was barely mentioned. It sounded like Boot Camp, but they ended fitter than they had ever been. It was the first, profound lesson in what it would take if they wanted lasting international success.

"We're not trying to produce cricketers who play for England, we want England cricketers," said Morris. He knows the difference. Through a combination of capricious selectorial whim and the presence in his time of Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart, he appeared in only three Tests. One memory of his batting in those matches endures. In his second match the West Indian fast bowlers were giving Morris and Gooch a fearful roasting. The pair had put on 112 with no little pluck and high skill when a steep lifter from Curtly Ambrose removed the chin strap from Morris's helmet. He was out next ball.

Morris remained a formidable county operator. He started young and his career was split into levels of achievement. Until the age of 25 he averaged below 30, afterwards above 50. He finished at just about 40. In what turned out to be his last season in 1997, there were calls for his recall as opener against Australia. The new chairman of selectors, David Graveney, made it clear he wanted to err on the side of younger men. The summons never came.

That July, Glamorgan were going well in the Championship, Morris was contributing significantly. He spotted a job advertisement in which the England and Wales Cricket Board were seeking what they then called a technical director. "I had never applied for a job in my life, let alone been for an interview," he said. "But something about this appealed to me. I was still very happy playing and would have gone on. It's the only job I would have given it up for."

By September, Glamorgan were county champions. In the final, decisive match, Morris scored 165. By October he had a new job. He retired. When it is put to him that he went too young at 33 there is a fleeting hint of regret. "I don't miss it now," he said, as if he might just have done at first. It is often said of English cricketers that too many of them go on too long, but it is also possible to depart too soon.

Morris was persuaded by three things: the fact that such offers do not come along every five minutes, the depth of the task at hand and the five knee operations he had undergone, which meant that a batting career extending into the sunset was probably not in prospect.

Make no mistake, the success of his tenure will be judged by the Academy. He stressed that the England door would not be shut on anybody who had not been nominated as a student, but equally if the England team were not replete with Academy graduates it was not fulfilling its function.

But it is not all there is to Morris's role. Under his guidance, the national coaching structure has been reorganised. There are now four levels – there will shortly be five – which ensure that kids can have fun playing cricket and that those with serious aspirations in the game will have expert guidance. It is an unglamorous business, the reorganisation of coaching structures, but a measure of the neglect of it in England was that it had been unchanged for 45 years. Morris's predecessor, Mickey Stewart, had recognised the need for a different policy – "coaching the coaches" – and Morris was urged to get on with it swiftly. The magnitude of the change is embodied in the level-three coaching grade. In a week's course, candidates are taught five different disciplines as they apply to cricket: technical, tactical, physical, mental and lifestyle.

But this, as Morris knows, is all very well. If they do not have enough level-one coaches to teach the fun of the game in the first place, nobody will take it up, nobody will be interested and nobody will care whether there is an England side, never mind if they are winning. "The more successful England become the more the group of 16- to 24-year-olds who are showing so little interest in cricket will become interested. In Australia it's phenomenal. Everybody talks about it, everybody loves it, that's what we have to aspire to."

You can get fed up of hearing about Australia, but Morris was happy to report that they may be revising some of their practices having seen England's in action. Instead of plumping for young, sometimes largely unformed, players they will be giving opportunities to older ones. So they can put that in their pipes and smoke it.

Everybody who watches cricket in England will be looking this summer at how the first Academicians perform. If the majority of them do not do well, judgements will be swift. Morris agreed, but insisted that players could go to the Academy two or three times. A very few might do so well that they would come through to an England central contract immediately. Others would return for a different, bespoke programme (for instance if a player had shown he was good against pace one winter, he might be sent to India the next for work against spin). A third group would be jettisoned from the Academy and have to find their own way into the England team.

So Morris has five years for it all to fall into place. Unless it does so sooner, of course, and England, say, win the Ashes and the World Cup next winter. He smiled gently at that suggestion. But what if by 2007 they are still showing no signs of improvement? "I'll be laying patios," he said.

Biography: Hugh Morris

Born: 5 October 1963 in Cardiff.

Family: Married to Debbie. Twin daughters Bethanie and Emily, aged 8.

Played for: Glamorgan, England.

England Test career: Three caps. Debut v West Indies in 1991. Test average: 19.16. Scored 18,520 first-class runs at 40.29.

County career: 1981: Glamorgan debut while at Blundell's School. 1986: Appointed youngest-ever captain of Glamorgan. 1990: Hit club-record 10 centuries and 2,276 runs. 1993: Led Glamorgan to the Sunday League title and captained England A. 1996: Hit 202 v Yorkshire. 1997: Hit career- best 233no v Warwickshire. 1997: In final county game, hit 165 to equal Alan Jones' Glamorgan record of 52 first-class centuries.

Currently: ECB performance director.