When it comes to lumping the blame on to someone else, the Test and County Cricket Board has got a good deal more form than England's cricket team, and it last night responded to this winter's latest Ashes dbcle by lopping off the head of the team manager, Keith Fletcher.
Fletcher was sacked half-way through his five-year contract, and informed by the Board's chief executive, Alan Smith, through a pre-arranged telephone call to Switzerland, where Fletcher is on a skiing holiday. Fletcher thus chalked up the double, having been fired as England captain over the phone 13 years ago, and probably went straight out on to the piste.
Having presided over only five Test victories and 15 defeats in his two and a half years as team manager, Fletcher might not have been too surprised at the news, even though the Board was expected to at least allow him one more chance, against the West Indies this summer.
However, what would have surprised Fletcher a good deal less was the news that the Board, having been implored by almost every influential figure in the game (including the man who will now take over Fletcher's role, Raymond Illingworth) to reduce the domestic cricket programme drastically, should have chosen the same Board meeting to announce a new five-year extension for the Benson and Hedges Cup.
For a trade-off of £4m, the TCCB has guaranteed until the end of the summer of the year 2000 a competition widely regarded to be a major reason for English Test cricket remaining stagnant and retarded. There are three one-day competitions in an English summer, at least one too many, and yet once again the Board has been seduced by short-term profit. When it comes to deciding which is the more pathetic, England's cricket team or their ruling body, England once again trail in a distant second.
The decision to sack Fletcher and give his role to the chairman of selectors Illingworth for the next 12 months was recommended by the Board's executive and endorsed by the 18 counties (plus representatives from the MCC and Minor Counties) at the spring meeting yesterday.
There were the usual platitudes about "conscientious carrying out of duties" and "professional expertise" - followed by Smith's comment that there had been a "loss of confidence" in Fletcher's abilities. "There has been little progress in the development of the England team and we believe we have to look elsewhere for the man to rekindle the pride and passion in playing for England.''
To begin with, they are looking no further than Illingworth - "a motivator and an expert cricketer," Smith said, "who will raise team spirit and get the best out of individual players as a whole." Where Smith was hiding when Illingworth was raising team spirit by making disparaging remarks about the players in Australia last winter, heaven only knows.
"Illingworth will continue as chairman of selectors, take on full responsibility for the England team, and be accountable for its performance. This appointment is for this summer against the West Indies and next winter against South Africa and for the World Cup in India and Pakistan.''
Whether this means that England will or will not have a full- time team manager in the dressing-room during winter was not made clear, but Illingworth has said that he is not keen to spend entire winters away from his Spanish villa, and when he was last in India and Pakistan for the 1987 World Cup, with the BBC, no Englishman boarded the flight home with as heartfelt a statement that he would never return.
The Fletcher sacking certainly overshadowed what was felt beforehand to be the only positive decision likely to be taken at the meeting, the replacement of Brian Bolus (ironically, Illingworth's man) by David Graveney, on the selection panel.
Graveney said that he would now be awaiting his instructions from Illingworth. "I see my role as a secondary one to him," Graveney said, which at least saves Illingworth the trouble of making that perfectly clear to him.
Illingworth himself said that he saw it as his job to restore team spirit, motivation and confidence, and "get the players performing consistently to their ability''. The chairman was called into the meeting before Fletcher was sacked, and, in the words of Smith, "a consensus was reached". Illingworth, in other words, gave the final thumbs-down.
Fletcher's consolation ("Keith took the news extremely well," Smith said, "he's a most delightful and decent fellow'') is that he will receive a £100,000 pay-off, while Illy's reward, apart from the supremo status he believes (with some justification) he requires to turn England's fortunes around, will be an increased salary (from around £40,000). "Believe it or not," Smith said, "we haven't talked about money." Eh up. Illy's cracking up already.
Fletcher's legacy, page 38
West Indies' victory, page 37Reuse content