THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: Changing times for Essex Man

Whatever Ray Illingworth's reservations, Graham Gooch is now a Test selector. Derek Pringle found the former England captain confident that he can combine a new role with his traditional one of scoring a lot of runs
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Inquiring about Graham Gooch's new backseat role as an England selector, after a distinguished Test career in which he scored more runs than any other Englishman, is a bit like asking Richard Branson if he'd be content running the village shop.

Assuming a diminished influence is never easy for high achievers, and it is difficult to imagine him thumbing through the Cricketer's Who's Who which recently landed on his doormat as part of a selector's starter pack. One that also contained claim forms for the pounds 55.50 daily allowance, which Gooch intends to waive.

People like him are restless by nature, and although the former Essex and England captain might not give the impression that he is the world's most dynamic personality, beneath the impassive facade - still fronted by that familiar drooping moustache and recently rejuvenated by an impressive hairpiece - he is a driven man. Starting a new job as lackey to Ray Illingworth will, surely, be a let down?

"People are always asking me what I'm going to be able to bring to the selection table," he said over a fish supper in Southampton last week. "I certainly don't think, as someone recently involved with the England set-up, that my views are going to set the world alight. But as someone out on the field I'll be able to see guys perform at close quarters."

Not that Illingworth has been exactly encouraging about Gooch's potential to provide a valuable input. In the Monday Interview a fortnight ago, Illingworth said that he felt Gooch would be too busy playing for Essex to do the job of selector, finishing with the barbed rejoinder, "I know for a fact that a few county captains feel that Gooch should not do the job, so it's not just me who thinks this."

Gooch's reaction was a laconic shrug. Essex have promised to allow him games off to watch other matches but, he says, "It's a suck it and see it situation. Obviously if Essex are pushing for honours I want to be involved."

Like Keith Fletcher, his predecessor at Essex, much of Gooch's knowledge of the game and its players comes from direct conflict, rather than the behind-the-scenes analysis of those who prefer the number-crunching statistics churned out by computers. That cold distance of assessment is not how Gooch plans to go about his new role.

"It is always useful to see how people react to situations, especially from 22 yards. It's a unique insight and one that can't really be got from beyond the rope. As a batsman, I've always liked a bit of eyeball confrontation or chat with the bowler. As well as getting me going, it allows you to see what they are made of. The other day I told Mike Gatting that I wished I could play against Angus Fraser every week. I love the exchanges I have with him."

As one of England's most courageous performers, particularly against the great West Indies fast bowling batteries of the 1980s, Gooch admits to having firm ideas on the kind of players he will be looking for.

"Definitely players with character. To my mind, there's more to it than just having ability, and in my experience, those players who have been the best have not always been those with the most ability.

"To succeed at the highest level you need to be able to play in a pressure- cooker situation, and for that you need character. Probably the most important ingredient needed to become a top-level sportsman is the ability to perform on the big day. As Test cricket is played over five days, it has more big days than most sports and you need to be consistent."

That consistency - beautifully evidenced again by Eric Cantona at Wembley - may be what England lack as a team, but, like the perfect grain of his hefty bats, it has always been central to the Gooch philosophy. With complacency its mortal enemy, the endless quest for consistency forced even him into making technical changes, following three relatively fallow years in the late 1980s.

"The penny dropped in about 1987, when I didn't play any Tests. I knew my game had deteriorated and fallen into disrepair, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Although I continued to play for England it all came to a head against the Aussies in 1989, when I kept getting out to Terry Alderman. In a way he did me a favour by exposing the big flaw in my game, which was playing across the swinging ball.

"Fortunately, Geoff Boycott hit on the thing that put me right. Instead of moving straight back, I'd been moving across my stumps as well. Being top-heavy, I was toppling over a bit, which makes you play across the line. It was such a simple thing, and after working hard on it and getting things right I went on to have the best years of my Test career."

Having eradicated this technical glitch, he went even further. A hard trainer already, he pushed himself further, purging himself of mental sloppiness in the process.

Convinced he had seen the light, he began to view team mates through new eyes, ones that had the glint of the zealot in them, and set about indoctrinating them. With a mistrust towards those prone to compromising their talent by taking short-cuts, his well documented spat with David Gower was really only Gooch's - ultimately misguided - way of trying to get the left-hander to fulfil his own enormous talents.

Admitting mistakes were made, he is now far mellower. Last week he was spotted having a long chat with Graeme Hick - also seen by many as an underachiever - during Worcestershire's recent game with Essex. A few days later, Hick plundered a double century against India. Had Gooch, by chance, offered him the crucial advice?

"Not at all. In fact I was seeking it. As a player cum selector, part of my job is to canvass opinion from as many sources as possible, but more especially from people like Graeme, who is a senior England player. It would be totally wrong if I didn't talk to him, not only about his role but also about his views on other established players as well as on those coming through.

"Senior players must be made to feel they are a part of the set-up, though I'm still a firm believer that the influence of the captain, coach and chairman should be paramount. Mind you, although I have great respect for Raymond, I shan't be siding with anyone unless I happen to agree with them."

As he slips into his new role, and possibly into the usual bout of committee room lunches, there is still evidence that there is plenty of petrol left in the playing tank. Rumours of this being his last year must surely be premature?

"Well I haven't said it will definitely be my last season, though it really depends on how it goes for me. I'm totally confident that as long as I can keep my mind in gear the fitness and ability are there to score runs. I'm mindful, though, that I need to have the motivation to go out there everyday and that will be the challenge.

"These days I do need that extra edge to motivate me. As I've always said: 'I want to be the best. Not one of the rest.' So I need to perform. Last season I scored hundreds against Ambrose and Akram. That's the sort of challenge I need to wind me up. Against lesser bowlers it's not always there."

Should he decide to call it a day, he says he would like to continue on the periphery of the game. Perhaps helping players sort out specific problems, something he has been doing at Essex, though he realises that with two established coaches in the shape of Keith Fletcher and Alan Butcher, there is no more room at the inn.

"In top-class cricket, you always need other people to help you, whoever you are. One of the things I found when I became captain of Essex and then England is that other players tend to put you on a pedestal and ignore you. They see you as infallible, so no one bothers to help you or talk to you about your game.

"Having said that, I believe, from a coaching point of view, that it is far better if a player comes to you and asks specifics. Often, you get so many people bombarding you with advice that the messages become confused. That's why, when I prepared for Tests, I preferred one-to-one coaching. It's something England seem to be moving towards with their pools of specialist coaches."

For someone who started his career as a quiet, withdrawn teenager in the bedlam of an Essex dressing-room - after three weeks on the staff, even Keith Fletcher was moved to inquire whether or not "it" spoke - Gooch has attracted more than his fair share of ire, particularly over the Gower incident and his part in the 1982 rebel tour of South Africa.

"We got a lot of flak, but at the time I didn't see it as turning my back on England. I was sympathetic to what the South African cricket authorities were trying to do and, as far as I was concerned, I simply took up an offer to play cricket there, out of contract. All I know is that when I went out and played for England I gave as much as I could and, as far as I'm concerned, as much as anybody else. When I was captain I gave everything to that job. I made a lot of sacrifices that have since been detrimental to my home life. But then that's the sort of job it is."

He says he regrets nothing and cannot understand Bob Woolmer's claim, if true, that England's problems last winter stemmed from the tactic that they set out to draw the first two Tests in South Africa before a ball had been bowled.

"My belief is that you start every game looking to win. If some players believe they have made it just by reaching the England side, that's disappointing. My idea of making it, is to get a hundred or five wickets. Not merely by getting selected and copping the match fee.

"Hopefully we can get that attitude sorted out and unearth a few players who will make the difference and help turn England into a consistent force."