Silk spins into the attack

Stephen Brenkley reports on an inquiring mind determined to better English cricket
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SOME TIME in late summer the document that shall become known as the Acfield Report will be delivered. By mid-winter, if it enjoys the fate of several predecessors, it will have been diluted beyond recognition or plunged towards the bottom of an endless pending file, only to be disturbed by the findings of the inquiry that succeeds it.

But one man is determined that this inquiry will yield answers. "If this one doesn't work I really don't want to imagine what the fate of English cricket and the England team is going to be," said Dennis Silk, chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board. "Are we a degenerate nation that cannot be bothered to make the effort?"

The TCCB is usually blamed for the ills besetting English cricket, largely because other suspects are thin on the ground. In the past few weeks, since England's decline appeared to accelerate, he has been more candid than any previous administrator in assessing the state of the game.

The immediate effect has been to adopt the orthodox solution: set up a working party. At the TCCB's spring meeting, David Acfield, the former Essex off-spinner who is chairman of its cricket committee, was duly appointed "to review all aspects relating to administration, selection and management of England teams at home and abroad".

Silk is in no doubt about the significance of Acfield's findings even before he has begun to unearth anything. Importantly, he views the establishment of the inquiry as tantamount to acceptance that there should be a national academy.

While he does not assume that this finishing school will suddenly prompt the return of the Ashes and the annihilation of all other Test-playing nations, he senses that its part will be vital. It clearly still rankles that last year the 18 first-class counties, worried about who would provide the cash, at first backed an academy then rejected one.

"This has been building up for some time," Silk said. "There has been a sea-change in cricket and the way international cricketers prepare and I don't think we're preparing in the way we should. It's indicative, I believe, that Australia, South Africa and New Zealand should all have had their success with academies. You may think it odd to mention New Zealand, but a year ago they were in complete disarray. They have come a long way since, rebuilding, finding young players. Where are our young players?"

Silk, who is in Lahore this weekend for the World Cup final and the ICC meeting following it, hopes that the Acfield Report can be implemented by the end of this year, or early next, and pay dividends within two or three years. He wants tougher, stronger, fitter, more diet- conscious county cricketers and more visionary coaches.

"Some of the tales I hear occasionally about some young professionals and their reluctance to train and prepare have been a bit worrying. But we people must take our share of responsibility too in not having given the right lead. I sense now that counties realise what has to be done."

Silk, 64, played his county cricket as an amateur with Somerset - he got a hundred in only his second match - and twice scored centuries for Cambridge against Oxford at Lord's. David Acfield, like Silk, went to Cambridge but was a member of the tough, extremely well-honed Essex side of the late Seventies and Eighties.

"I don't want people to think this is a working party which will revolutionise the structure of cricket," Acfield said, quelling some of the boss's thunder. "It's looking at how we pick the England team, whether we have full-time selectors, players as selectors, a manager and a coach and so on. The only contentious issue may be whether players should be contracted to the board as in Australia and South Africa, or to the counties." Nor is Acfield in favour of overthrowing the much-maligned County Championship as it is at present known and unloved. He regards it as part of the fabric of English society.

But he recognises its severe shortcomings ("the standards aren't good enough") and the need to get the balance right ("county cricket has to give a bit"). Acfield, now chairman of Essex, skilfully conveys the impression of being a quiet revolutionary.

"There are no glib answers," he said, "but I think we need to produce our own players, to get more people playing the game from a young age. Then you have players filtering through."

He is doubtless perfectly right. So was the man who said: "If only we can get enough boys playing this game in England and playing it right it is quite certain that from the mass will be thrown up a new Compton, a new Tate, a new Jack Hobbs and and when that happens we need not worry any more about our meetings with Australia." That man was H S Altham, on being appointed chairman of the Special Committee inquiring into the future of English cricket - in 1949.