The thoughts of Chairman Graveney

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David Graveney, England's chairman of selectors, is sneaking another glance at his watch. It is the fourth time he has done so in the past quarter of an hour. No, he is not being rude, it's just that he has to fit in three other interviews before returning to his office in Bristol. Outside, the Australian bowlers are toiling against Gloucestershire, one of the three counties Graveney played for before his retirement a few years ago.

Graveney is many things: family man; secretary of the Professional Cricketers Association (PCA); accountant; and current holder of that infamous poisoned chalice, chairman of selectors. Keeping all of them going successfully means having the dexterity of a juggler and the constitution of a Stakhanovite.

Busy is not the word, and this summer, wearing his selectorial hat alone, he will cover more miles than a wandering albatross as he charges up and down motorways in an attempt to discover which players are likely to best serve England this summer.

He does officially get some help from his fellow selectors Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch. Indeed, Graveney believes they are in the best place possible - the middle - to make assessments about players. There, you can apparently "feel what a player is like," rather than peer at him from the sidelines through the post-prandial fug of a county committee room.

He also maintains close contact with Michael Atherton and David Lloyd and feels that the withdrawal of the captain's vote has improved dressing- room atmosphere. "It's taken the difficult decisions, like telling someone they've been dropped, away from Athers." The downside is that he will now have to watch out for effigies with pins stuck in them.

As chairman, he also gleans information from umpires, county coaches and others whose judgement he trusts. Good selection, he informs me, is a combination of, "gut reaction and intelligence gathered in the field. Oh, and luck," he adds, matter-of-factly.

So far it has all gone swimmingly well in the Texaco series, in which an England team brimming with bold and imaginative selections like Ben Hollioake and Ashley Giles fairly trounced the Aussies, three matches to nothing.

"I'm obviously delighted that whatever directions we headed off on in terms of youth paid off," Graveney said. "Having travelled round the country and heard nearly every commercial radio station making cheap comments about our chances against the Aussies, last week ought to have galvanised a lot of cricket watchers into looking forward to the Ashes with real interest."

But while most of the country rejoiced, Graveney has not allowed himself to get to carried away. He knows there are bigger fish to come, and ones that may not take quite so readily to being fried.

"My wife Julie has told me that I ought to be more gracious in accepting any plaudits. In fact, I still look at it from the playing point of view - that if you are not playing, you're not really part of it. On the other hand my little lad thinks it's wonderful at the moment. Although it might be a bit different if there should suddenly be a change of fortunes."

When Graveney was first appointed - unopposed - in March, England had just returned from a mixed winter in Zimbabwe and New Zealand. Although they hadn't lost any Test matches, the Zimbabwe leg of the tour had been soured by some abysmal one-day performances. After Raymond Illingworth's bitter departure the question on everyone's lips was why on earth did Graveney want the job?

"Partly the honour and partly that to me at least, it represents the next best thing to playing for England. Without belittling what I do with the PCA, it's probably the highest award I can get. For that reason I probably treat being chairman in a slightly different way to those who have played Test cricket."

But before anyone launches a tirade against people indulging themselves in precious fantasies, it must be remembered that Graveney is part of a cricketing dynasty and subject to all the pressures that inevitably entails. Like him, his father Ken was captain of Gloucestershire, while his uncle Tom was one of the great post-war England batsmen, with almost 5,000 Test runs to his name. Just being a Graveney comes with some hefty cricket baggage, and being in charge of selection is David's bit towards continuing the journey.

With the first Test looming in three days' time, the plan, he says, is to take each Test as it comes: the only groundwork being a quick tour of the Test venues in order to chat with the groundsmen involved.

"Mike Denness [chairman of the pitches committee] and I have taken time to see what problems the groundstaff have encountered with the early rain and to let them know, in basic terms, what kind of pitches we'd like to play on." At which point he shuts up lest he reveal too much of a delicate nature to Australian ears.

The trips may come to nothing, for groundsmen are notoriously tetchy folk, not always sure of which master they should be answering to. As was the case when the flak started to fly at Edgbaston two years ago when West Indies steam-rollered home before lunch on the third day.

But if England do get the pitches they want, and do go on to regain the Ashes, won't the euphoria blot out the need for those systemic changes Lord MacLaurin has so busied himself in identifying?

"I don't think so. When I've talked to members of the PCA, the overwhelming reaction is for change. They may not be quite sure where or how far that change should go just yet, but they want it."

Sounds like change for change's sake then, I venture.

"Not really. It doesn't matter how successful England are this summer, it will still not address the problems about the amount of cricket we expect our Test players to play."

He then reels off what an England player able to last the course can look forward to in 1998. The year begins with a three-month tour of the West Indies; a six-month domestic season then follows, including six Tests and a triangular one-day series with South Africa and Sri Lanka; the year then ends midway through a winter tour of Australia that began in October.

You don't have to be a visionary to see he has a point. It may even go some way towards explaining England's Jekyll and Hyde persona regarding their respective levels of performance at home and abroad. Unfortunately, solutions are not quite as simple.

"It may just be that our international players don't play as much for their clubs as they have done in the past," he says with a shrug that suggests the idea has not yet been run past the counties. "I think we now recognise that Test and one-day cricket have different requirements. As far as one-day cricket is concerned, there is definitely a shift towards using specialist players. But that is a difficult area when you're on tour and you have to keep players not involved in the Tests match-fit in an English winter.

"Perhaps one of the ways round that would be to participate more often in the one-day tournaments going on around the world." In fact the wheels are already in motion, and England are to play in just such a competition in Sharjah this coming December. More specifically, he feels that cricket must compete in the market place, not only for spectators but for participants as well.

"We are becoming more and more conscious of ensuring that any employment as a professional cricketer has to be very attractive. Sport is no longer played in neat little boxes where rugby is played in winter and cricket is played in summer. Talented schoolkids invariably play more than one sport. So what we've got to do is make sure we attract our fair share of the market. I think if we sit back and expect talented people just to fall into cricket, we're barking up the wrong tree. What we need is better and fairer employment that ensures the best players come through. Not the comfort zone that has existed over the last 20 years."

He is, surprisingly in wake of recently published books, not one of those queuing up to have a pop at Ray Illingworth, his predecessor as chairman. Was this because Illingworth's supposed dictatorship had shown him how not to go about things? "Actually, the selection process was a lot more democratic under Ray than it is now," he says, blowing all popular myths about Illy clean out of the water. Mind you, he does believe Illy was right to go, and firmly believes there is a finite timespan for someone to be involved.

Would then it be enough for him if England were to win the Ashes? Apparently not, for although Graveney believes the Ashes to be the ultimate prize in Test cricket, he feels England must also set their sights on the World Cup and on winning a tough tour abroad.

"Last week was a great boost of confidence to all of us. Before that happened a lot of people felt we didn't deserve to be on the same park as Australia. Well things are different now. We've won a few games and people, as well as players, are beginning to think, `Well, maybe we can compete'. When you've got guys like the Aussies involved, you can be sure that Athers and Bumble [Lloyd] will get that point over."