During his playing days, no one can quite recall Ray Illingworth admitting to a mistake. Once, when he got hit for six, he retrieved the ball from a plate of coleslaw, stalked over to the committee balcony, and harangued its occupants for shortening the boundary in order to accommodate the sponsor's tent. On another occasion, when he was clean bowled having an agricultural swipe, he cursed "t' bloody umpire" for giving him "t' wrong bloody guard".
It was, therefore, akin to being rendered horizontal by a feather duster when he reflected on last winter's Australian misadventure and said: "All of us can take a bit of the blame." What? Even him? "Yes, me as well."
Where he took exception, however, was in being fingered by his captain for making errors in selection. Michael Atherton and Will Carling have a few things in common, including sharing the same agent and the opinion that some of their sport's more influential figures are a touch on the elderly side. In the end, the only thing that saved Atherton his job was that he managed to keep flatulence out of the argument.
It was not so much Atherton's call for younger players, and younger selectors, which so irked his chairman, as the implication that he had been saddled with players he did not want. Illingworth, who is not the sort of bloke who goes in for coded messages when something a bit plainer would get the message across, said: "The suggestion that Michael had a team foisted upon him is, frankly, a load of crap.
"Apart from picking Martin McCague instead of Angus Fraser, there was not a single argument. I was forced to remind Michael that his role was to take control on the field, not to go around grousing off it, and I also invited him to take a look at the cricket secretary's minutes of the selection meeting if his memory was playing a few tricks. There's been a lot of stuff flying around, including people like Bob Willis calling me geriatric every two minutes, but we are all part and parcel of a team and Michael is one of that team.
"Myself, Fred Titmus and Brian Bolus were especially irritated to hear that Michael had not wanted Mike Gatting. He was picked unanimously as a bloke we thought could handle the likes of Warne and May, and all Michael expressed was a worry about whether Gatting was a potential rival for the captaincy. We assured him that Gatting was not a rival, and never would be."
Illingworth actually agrees with Atherton that good young players are better than good old ones, but said: "At the end of the day, you don't pick someone merely because he is 20 years old. If you're good enough, you're in. No one would have advocated chucking Boycott out just because he was 40, and although fielding is a lot more important than it used to be, Gooch would still be in the frame had he not retired.
"Basically, Michael and me agree on more than we disagree. I personally think we have a good relationship, far better than is generally portrayed in the press. I can't help the way the press writes, and he feels the same way. Ever since we started the press have tried to create friction between what they perceive as two stubborn characters, but basically we see eye to eye. All I've done is remind him that certain opinions are best expressed to me rather than other people."
If, in the end, Atherton got away with what Illingworth perceived as insubordination to a senior officer, then Keith Fletcher, the coach, paid the price for poor results - and Illingworth's fingerprints were widely thought to be on the dagger. Illingworth denies this, although neither does he claim to have gone into bat for Fletcher at the sacking meeting.
"I thought that there was a clear lack of people pulling 100 per cent for each other in Australia, and that Fletch probably didn't succeed in getting the players to believe fully in their own ability. After the South Africa Test at The Oval, which contained some of the best cricket I'd seen from an England side in 40 years, we went totally downhill in Australia, and I certainly made my views known.
"But I did not demand that he be sacked, nor was I there when the decision was taken. What I will say is that it is a far better system to have a combined chairman of selectors and manager, whether it is me or anyone else. It is not ideal for the chief selector not to be involved during the winter, and my own short presence in Australia was basically a PR thing. From now on there should be more continuity, and I'm now more than happy to carry the can for the team's performances."
So how does Illingworth regard the not uncommon view that can-carrying happens to be the one area he is happy to delegate to others? "It's rubbish, is that. Take this business about me supposedly criticising the team in Australia at that luncheon in London. It was totally out of context. Ridiculous, really.
"One of the headlines was all about my 'scathing attack' on Atherton, but I was merely answering questions. 'Has Michael phoned you?' I was asked. 'No, but he's got my number.' 'Why hasn't he dialled it then?' 'Well, I take it he hasn't seen the need.' 'What would you say if he did phone?' 'I'd have said that I thought he hadn't quite found the best way of deciding on his No 6 - Gatting, White or Crawley.' And that was my scathing attack. Pretty unreasonable, really.
"And then I was asked if I thought I had saved Michael's career over the dirt on the ball business. I said, 'Possibly, because if I hadn't have fined him, Peter Burge [the International Cricket Council referee] might well have suspended him, and that would have made it very hard to make him captain in Australia.'
"So someone said, 'Has he thanked you?', and I replied, 'No, but I wouldn't expect him to'. This came out as me criticising him for being ungrateful."
Whatever else you can say about Illingworth, English cricket has spent so long being run like a private club, with information being thumbscrewed out on the prisoner of war's "name, rank and serial number" basis, that Illingworth's willingness to meet a blunt question without disappearing up his own nether regions ought to be more of a cause for gratitude than it is.
"I think Michael Parkinson summed it up when he said that Raymond is too honest for his own good at times. I'll always give an answer. I've always been that way. The people who get upset when it is misrepresented are the players, but I stand by what I say. I only want it to be written the way I say it."
So why, apparently, is he less keen on others having their say? "Well I'm not. The thing that most disappointed me with Michael was that I felt he had misrepresented the situation, maybe because things were going wrong for him, maybe in the Fraser case because they are close friends.
"But I often have meetings with the players and invite them to say whatever they like. I say, 'Call me a twat if you want, but do it here to my face. Don't whisper it to other people'. People are suggesting that Atherton has been gagged. Not true. He can come to me any time he wants, and at the start and end of a Test match, he is the one who deals with the media.
"People have also said that I wouldn't have stood for the likes of me when I was captain. That's rubbish as well. There's virtually no difference between now and then. I had discussions and disagreements in selection, neither did I always get the team I wanted.
"I can tell you, and Fred Titmus and Brian Bolus will back it up, that on all the split decisions last summer, the captain always had the final vote. The only time he has been overruled was on Fraser, and we took the decision in good faith. McCague was bowling well, Fraser had not taken more than two wickets in a Test innings for seven matches. And had it not rained in Sydney, when he was 0 for 42 from 10 overs, there might not have been the uproar there was. Gus took the chance to exploit the conditions very well, but one minute he was bowling on a flat wicket, and then it turned into a greentop.
"What upsets me most is misinterpretation. It is true I wanted Geoff Boycott as one of the coaches [Boycott is thought to have arrived at a different opinion to the Test and County Cricket Board about his financial worth] but then it came over that John Edrich was a second choice. That was never true, as Edrich was always going to be taken on to specialise with the left-handers.
"Then when David Graveney took over from Brian Bolus as a selector, I was supposed to be annoyed because I had lost a bloke who always agreed with me. In fact, my vote for Brian [and Fred] was entirely down to the hard work they had put in last summer. Wisden [the almanac] said something about being amateurish, but we covered countless miles watching players last summer. I told Graveney that if I hadn't voted for the same blokes I'd have been letting them down after all the graft they had put in, and he said that he had no problem with that at all.
"The press are usually trying to turn these things into a good story, but it's the effect it might have on the team rather than myself which I don't care for. The day I personally lose sleep over it, I'll pack up, but all I need is a couple of pints of hand-pulled Tetleys to send me off at night."
And what about the dictator image? "Another load of crap, and you can print it like that. I do not ask any more of the players than that they give absolutely 100 per cent. At the end of the day, they've got to come into the dressing-room after six hours, look in the mirror and say, 'I've given my best.' If they can do that, I'm happy."
And can Raymond do the same? "Yes. I might not get everything spot-on correct [pause for reflection here, as though this is not the sort of thing he is used to acknowledging] but as for being able to look into the mirror. Yes I can."Reuse content