Profile: A leader by remote control

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The Independent Online
When David Gower is married on Friday in Winchester Cathedral, he will be accompanied at the altar by a large measure of public sympathy as well as Ms Thorunn Nash. The disagreement between Gower and the England captain, Graham Gooch, has got out of hand. The country is being split as it ne'er has been since Charles I and Cromwell, to whom Gower and Gooch are so akin in temperament and method - but not to the extent that they cannot live together in the same cricket team. Someone, somewhere along the line, has failed to communicate.

Public opinion, which has always had a soft spot for Gower so long as he has not been the England captain, was further outraged last Monday by his omission from the winter touring party to India and Sri Lanka. After his long-awaited comeback Gower had played an innings to save the Old Trafford Test against Pakistan, and to win the one at Headingley. He, not Gooch or Mike Gatting, is England's most experienced batsman in the sub-continent. Gower has made 1122 Test runs there at an average of 59, and that includes a poor tour in 1984-85, when the captaincy - although leading to an England victory - told upon him.

The attempts of England's selectors to justify Gower's omission have been met with ridicule. His age (he is 35), and the possibility that Gooch, Gatting and Gower might all retire at the same time, were advanced as reasons by the England Test committee at Lord's on Monday, and gained little credibility. Its chairman, Ted Dexter, has the capacity to appear self-absorbed and remote: when he is reading, his wife may have to nudge his elbow to attract his attention; or he can walk past acquaintances, immersed in his latest theory on the golf swing. Not a vain man, Dexter says: 'It's something I'm conscious of and I've tried to correct it.' Still, this remoteness contributed to the failure of Monday's press conference to explain the omission of Gower.

The point is that a good case can be made for leaving Gower at home this winter. But the England Test committee, under Dexter, did not advance it. While a vast improvement in England's selection process has taken place under his chairmanship, there has been - not for the first time in his career - a failure to communicate.

When Dexter was appointed as the first chairman of the first England Test committee in March 1989, the publicity could have come from a PR hand-out, undiluted. He was portrayed as the successor not to Peter May but to Achilles, but with a considerably better cover-drive. Radley and Cambridge, Sussex and England, golfer and cricketer, officer in the Hussars and parliamentary candidate, sports consultant and journalist, author and aviator who has flown his own plane to Australia and crash-landed on the Yorkshire moors: the media lapped up every detail to peddle a golden myth.

Part of it is true: Dexter was born with exceptional sporting ability, and he has been diverse in his interests. Born in Milan, where his father ran an insurance company for British firms working in Italy, he was Radley's captain of cricket, fly- half for the Ist XV and a member of the first pair at rackets. After National Service in the 11th Hussars in Malaya, he won his cricket blue and made a century in the England side, early in 1959, before he made one for Sussex (when asked to play for the county he sent a postcard from Copenhagen to say he was having too much fun on holiday).

So dashing was Dexter that he leap-frogged over Colin Cowdrey to become the England captain in the early Sixties, at the age of 26; and, by mastering the new one-day game, he won the first two Gillette Cups for Sussex. Before retiring in 1966, he had achieved a Test average of 47, and picked up 66 Test wickets as well with medium-pace. He had already become a journalist writing his own column, and he had written a book in which he mentioned his mentally handicapped younger brother; with admirable openness, for this was still the Sixties.

In reality though, the rest of Dexter is more like us, in that he has been a nearly man. He nearly got a degree at Cambridge, but having gained a Third in Italian and French for his Part One, did not complete his Tripos. He was nearly a good England captain, but even in a Test match he could be seen at gully practising the lift of his golf-swing, self-absorbed, not communicating. He was nearly a great batsman, and was so in attack, as when he played his most famous innings, 70 against West Indies at Lord's in 1963, off 73 balls from Hall, Griffith, Gibbs and Sobers. But, by his own admission, he was not great in defence.

He did not come very close as the Conservative candidate for Cardiff South-East in the general election of 1964, although a return of 22,288 votes was a good effort against the 30,129 votes polled for James Callaghan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1962-63 Dexter nearly won the Ashes, drawing 1-1 with Australia, then losing 1-0 to them in 1964. He nearly became a top amateur golfer, for he has the same ability in wrist and forearm to time an awesome drive. In fact, a member of the Oxford and Cambridge Golf Society says that when Dexter was runner-up for the fifth time in the President's Putter, held annually in Rye, he was tempted to see it as a metaphor for his life.

Eventually though, in 1983, Dexter won the President's Putter, and again in 1985, while in 1989 he was made chairman of the new England Test committee. He said it was what everything in his life had been leading towards; kept his sports consultancy going but gave up his job with the Sunday Mirror; and took pounds 20,000 a year in compensation, thus becoming the first England chairman or selector to be paid.

He then set about reforming a system which was archaic: the previous chairman was a chap who had not played cricket for almost 30 years, and who took the odd hour off from his job in the City to pop into Lord's. It would be unfair to call this process 'Victorian', because in earlier times English cricket was run by aristocrats who might have had their prejudices, but who at least devoted much of their time and energy to defeating Australia.

Dexter defined his job in the following terms: 'The important thing is to streamline our policies so that new players go on the field feeling they are already part of a unit, not trying to hang on to a place by their shirt-tails.' Or, more succinctly: 'We want to make sure there is a conveyor belt pushing through the right, prepared talent.'

In large measure he has achieved this aim, in hand with Gooch and former team manager Micky Stewart. New players are usually no longer dumped after two Tests and therefore too scared to perform. The A tours introduced as a regular winter event have provided a standard higher than county cricket, although the players to benefit have been middle-aged never-will-be's as much as promising youngsters.

A scouting system has been introduced whereby regional observers report on the progress of the country's 50 or so leading cricketers, so that it does not matter too much that Dexter himself is seldom seen on the county circuit. Greater financial security for England players was another of his objectives, and this has been achieved: indeed, there is a growing resentment among the generality of poorly paid county pros that one or two England players should now be given winter contracts for doing little or nothing all winter.

Increasingly, however, Dexter has had other matters to address as chairman. As Gooch has grown in stature as England captain, he has been replicating at national level the Essex system in which the captain makes all decisions and selections. This is fine in a county set-up; but to attempt omniscience about the country as a whole can be dangerous. Therefore, to be an efficient chairman now, Dexter has to work even more closely with Gooch, modifying any preconceptions or prejudices: as Keith Fletcher, the new team manager, is an Essex man too, Dexter has a vital role as counterweight.

This communication is not yet all it should be. One England player this summer, a match-winner at Headingley and competent at the Oval, was not told anything about his future prospects until last Monday, when he heard he was not in either tour party. A cricketer has to have time to make arrangements for his winter. This was a return to the old feudalism.

Then there is Gower. Now it could be argued that Gower's presence is not conducive to that esprit de corps which must exist if a touring party is to succeed in India; that Gower on his previous visits has so frequently swanned off that there must be few wildlife parks left in the entire country where he has not spotted tiger, lion or leopard. Nothing is more certain to breed discontent on an England tour than a senior player going off by himself while the rest have to play a practice game in some hell-hole up-country.

Moreover, the effect of the selections for this winter's two tours will be to broaden the supply of Test players available to England. England should have two experienced wicketkeepers in Alec Stewart and Jack Russell, and perhaps a third in Richard Blakey. Instead of only Gower (who should of course be considered again on merit), they might possibly have a second left- handed, middle-order stroke-player in Neil Fairbrother. For while it is against the odds that Fairbrother's technique will adjust to Test cricket, it is just conceivable that he - and/or Graeme Hick - might settle down in India and that next summer, when England have to score 300 from the last 60 overs to win a Test, Fairbrother or Hick will make a match-winning hundred.

These arguments could have been put to the nation last week. Instead, the winter selections appeared to have no convincing design at all. Dexter, a former journalist and broadcaster, is not yet good enough at communication. All will be forgiven, though, if England, under Dexter's jurisdiction, do not nearly, but actually, win back the Ashes.

(Photograph omitted)

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