The views from afar

Richard Williams talks to the chairman of selectors on the eve of his trip Down Under
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The Independent Online
THE DOORS were locked, the curtains drawn, the answerphone set to repel callers. England had lost again. And the chairman of selectors had gone to ground.

Inside the converted stable block somewhere in West Yorkshire, sitting in the conservatory and looking out over his little walled garden, Raymond Illingworth shooed away his grandchildren and turned his thoughts back to that morning's defeat by Zimbabwe,a new low in the fortunes of English cricket.

"Well, I watched the second half," he said, waving towards the TV in the next room. "All of our innings. It's disappointing."

To say the least. And three run-outs? That just sounds like carelessness, doesn't it?

"Yes, and they were bad run-outs, as well. The sort of thing that shouldn't happen. You know, the ball's coming in from the boundary and you've only got one, and one bloke's running and the other bloke's not, that's bad cricket, isn't it?"

But didn't the innings get off to a decent start?

"A slow start. Mike was in 12 overs for 14. Gooch was playing well until he hit a long hop [a full toss, actually] straight back to the bowler. Hicky got 60 and was playing well and then ran himself out. It wasn't a great wicket. It was a slow turner andthey had three spinners."

And the trouble is that one more defeat seems to spell total doom, just as the occasional victory is the excuse for immoderate celebration . . .

"Well, to be fair, we've lost two or three matches badly, and the boys know that. They're sat in the dressing room with their heads down now. They were sat in the dressing rooms with their heads down when the Australian Academy beat them twice, too. Theydon't need telling. Basically, we're not batting well. Hicky's playing pretty well at times, but nobody's really stayed in and made a good score. Somebody's got to get 80, 90, 100. If you don't do that, you struggle. Unless you've got off to a flying start, where you get 30 in five overs, all the time you're taking five overs to get 30 it builds up, and every time somebody has to come in and start again, it's hard work. If they get away with a couple of overs against you, then it builds up a bit more.

That's why it's vital that if we do get in, we've got to keep going."

But this didn't seem to be quite the big picture. When the folks at home in England saw the 18-to-22-year-olds of the Australian Academy of Cricket beat their own seasoned professionals through an uninhibited willingness to go out and hit the ball as hard and as far as possible, they found themselves staring into the abyss again. After the disastrous adventures in India, Sri Lanka and West Indies under the Dexter regime, where now was the fruit of last summer's Illingworth/Atherton revolution?

"To be fair, there were one or two injuries, and we didn't play our best one-day side. We tried to give everybody some cricket. The one-day side we had at Old Trafford at the end of the season, I'd back us to probably win the World Cup with that team, and Mike Procter said the same thing. It was a completely different side. And it's a different game. The itinerary we agreed to this time is poor. You can't play both games at the same time. Now for us to play the right side, we'd have had to send probably19 players out there. People say why don't you do that? But if you do, half of them are sat around doing nothing, not getting any cricket. Next year, when I've been involved with the itinerary, we go to South Africa and play five Test matches, then we play the one-day series. That'll be different. Before the end of the five-day Test matches we'll fly at least three players out and we'll fly three back home at the end of the series. And we'll have a one-day side."

Nevertheless, the team does seem to have gone backwards in terms of attitude.

"Yes. At the end of last summer, I thought we were playing some really good cricket. We could have taken anybody in the world at that time. But we've let that bit of lack of confidence come back, and we're back to square one again."

By the time the second Test starts, on Christmas Eve, Illingworth will be in Australia, hoping to boost morale. But at the moment only the captain can do anything about it.

"The captain, the management out there, they've got to talk them through it. That's the main thing. They've got to get the batsmen in the middle talking to each other. If, say, Stewie and Hicky were out there together, one of them's got to say, `Look, wedon't need to do anything silly, we're going at a good enough rate to win if we stay like this.' They've got to talk to each other. I don't think that's going on."

Since he took over from Ted Dexter last March, Illingworth has talked about wanting players with guts. "If they aren't hungry and they don't give 100 per cent," he said in his manifesto, "then they won't be playing for England while I'm around." The evidence of the past few weeks might seem to contradict his words. Has the essential nature of the English Test cricketer changed so much since his day?

"I don't really think so. It's difficult to say. Going back to that time, you probably had more bowlers to pick from. That was the greatest thing. If somebody was a little bit out of sorts, you could get somebody else. Nowadays we can just about turn a decent bowling side out, but after that you're struggling. From what I understand, Benjamin's now got shingles. So he could be out for the rest of the tour. White's out for three or four weeks with the intercostal muscles. Alec's gone in the back this morning. I don't think we'd get 11 on the field at the moment. What it does is destroys morale a little bit. If you've got a settled side, it's not so bad. But if you start losing a few players, you lose a bit of confidence."

Like many of his critics, the Bothams and Boycotts, Illingworth believes that the problems lie within the domestic structure. "In the county championship, there's too much soft cricket halfway through the season. For half the sides, unless you've got people with pride in their own performance, there's nothing left to play for. In our day at Yorkshire you had pride in your own performance. If you didn't, you shouldn't have been playing. Maybe there should be a little bit more than that. If one or two inthe side aren't doing it at the halfway stage and there's nothing left to play for, it may be a good idea to push a few of the 18-to-20-year-olds in and give them an opportunity."

But hadn't England's chairman of selectors laid himself wide open to the charge of denying youth its chance by sending the 41-year-old Gooch and the 37-year-old Gatting to Australia?

"Yes, but they were never going to play together, without injuries. Even in Tests they were never going to play together."

But they did, in the first Test, in which we were slaughtered.

"They did, because Crawley didn't get runs. I wouldn't have played them both. I'd have played Craig White."

But here Illingworth was, 13,000 miles away, watching impotently. In the mid-Eighties, he had wanted the job of full-time supremo. After three interviews, the TCCB backed away. Now that he has the job on a part-time basis, functioning roughly 110 days a year for a remuneration of £20,000, someone like Ian Botham says that, at 61, he's too old and out of touch.

"That's a stupid statement. I watch more cricket than Botham's ever watched in his life. If he's at a bloody match he won't see one day in five, I wouldn't think. I watch every ball that's bowled. In the last 10 years before I took this job I saw every Test match and every one-day match. He talks rubbish."

But with the touring party's fortunes occupying so much of the nation's thoughts, and with £60m scheduled to come into English cricket from television over the next four years, surely his should be a full-time job? Would he take it now, were he offered it on those terms?

"I'm not all that desperate. I've got to the stage now where I think, do I want to be trailing all the way round Australia, one day here, one day there? I've got a family, I want to enjoy my life a little bit as well. Certainly that's what I wanted eightyears ago, or whenever it was. Now I've got a little place in Spain that we like to go to. Whether I want to spend all my life in cricket at this time is another matter." The studied nonchalance of his answer suggested that, in fact, he might just want that very much indeed.

The summer before last, during the Ashes series in England and another period of desperate national agonising over cricket as a metaphor for national decline, I asked his predecessor what he'd do differently if, instead of £20,000 for a part-time job, the TCCB decided to give him £120,000 in return for a full-time commitment. Ted Dexter had thought about it long and hard, and then, amazingly, said: "Nothing." I said I suspected I'd get a different answer from Raymond Illingworth.

"Yes," he said, "I think you probably would."

And had he spoken to the captain since the infamous lunch at which, on the eve of the first Test, his criticisms of Atherton, Keith Fletcher and MJK Smith were widely reported (or, as he claims, misreported)?

"Mike rang me that very night, funnily enough. I said to him, I think you'll be having some press on to you before long. Then I spoke to him again after the Test match. He was a bit down, which he was bound to be because he'd set his heart on not losing that one."

Had they talked since the one-dayers started?

"No. There's no real point. I doubt if he'll ring before I leave."

What will the chairman do when he gets there?

"I shall want to speak to Mike individually, certainly, and I'll want to speak to everybody else as a group."

Will he be giving them his views, or asking for theirs?

"I shall be saying, `I haven't come 13,000 miles to watch you buggers play like prats.' We'll try telling a few home truths and see how we go from there. Basically I feel there's not much between the sides. I just feel if we can get things going, we can still win the series. It's obviously harder when you go one down. But it's still possible. I think the talent's there. Confidence is the big thing."

So he's got a job on next week, then.

"I agree. I'll be surprised if we don't improve a bit, though."