It came in a newspaper article published last Friday by Ted Dexter, Illingworth's predecessor as chairman of the England selectors. Dexter has been a dignified ex-chairman, going back to the day job he did before (public relations), while refraining from the lucrative sideline (commentating and writing), on the grounds that it was better not to comment on his successor's performance.
He broke that rule because of two remarks in Illingworth's book, One- Man Committee. Illy wrote that he had "inherited very little" from Dexter, and had therefore been able to "begin with a clean sheet and impose different selection policies". These words so stuck in Dexter's gullet that he showed two hidden sides of his personality: an entertaining bitchiness and an interest in statistics.
"Our plain-speaking leader," he wrote, "has shuttled from selector to team manager and back again without any properly defined new selection policy whatever. And if there has been a new face or two in the England team, it is extraordinary how quickly they have withered on the vine and been replaced, not by new blood but by the same old faces as before . . .
"The facts suggest that the current chairman has in reality been groping along from match to match, picking from a pool of players ill-adapted to Test cricket and dogged by injuries galore in much the same way as I was forced to do, and indeed, Peter May before me.
"He [Illy] may not have inherited much from me, but why should anyone expect an inheritance anyway? Had England been holding the Ashes and the World Cup, I would still be doing the job. It is in the nature of things that each chairman starts on a low note . . .
"So to the single player of stature to emerge during Illingworth's time, Dominic Cork, I saw him bowl for England Under-19 at Taunton in 1989. I sent him on three of his four A team tours and personally visited them. Cork made his debut for England at 24 and was immediately successful. I call that a major inheritance."
Strong stuff, and all supported with detail of the kind that Dexter's critics used to say he could not grasp. He reminds us that Illingworth's first act was to drop five of the heroes of Barbados '94 (Thorpe, Lewis, Russell, Caddick and Tufnell) in favour of Gooch, White, Rhodes, DeFreitas and Such. Two years later, none of these five is still on the scene, while three of the five discards are back and doing well.
Dexter was regarded with scepticism by many players, who found him distant. A common reaction to Illingworth is "at least he knows the players' names". And sure enough, in making the point just mentioned, Dexter wrote Tufnell when he meant Such, and Such when he meant Tufnell. (Luckily, he didn't attempt many first names.) No doubt he did see Cork bowl for England Under- 19, but if it was at Taunton in 1989, Wisden must have got the venues wrong. He also listed the ages at which various current players have made their debuts and slipped up once or twice: Crawley 23 instead of 22, Ramprakash 22 instead of 21.
But this doesn't mean his general thrust is wrong. He is surely right that Illingworth has never had a clear policy. Whether this matters is another matter. Illy is a pragmatist, not a policymaker, and the job description changed subtly when he took it on - Dexter was chairman of the England committee, with wider responsibilities (which he discharged very well).
And he is right that many of Illy's selections have been bad. Dropping Thorpe in 1994 was a howler. In his book, Illy pins the blame on Mike Atherton, who wanted Crawley; but they should have both been in the team, and would have been if Illy had not been besotted with Craig White.
Dexter's figures show clearly that he tended to give debuts to younger men than Illy has. (Though if you use 29 players in a series, as Dexter did against the Australians in 1989, some of them are bound to be young.) Illy is not good at taking criticism, but this penny appears to have dropped; within two days of Dexter's piece appearing, he was saying to a reporter that he would like to see younger players coming through quicker. He blamed the counties: young stars like Alex Tudor of Surrey "only seem to get the odd game and nothing more". Here he goes again, blaming someone else: but this time it's fair enough. The counties are far too inclined to let old codgers hang around, and not inclined enough to give youth its head.
Illy will be chairman of selectors for only another two and a half months. He has made many baffling choices (the year-long preference for Rhodes over Russell; McCague and Benjamin for Australia in 1994-95; White, passim) and some inspired ones (Gough, 1994, Cork in 1995).
The best thing that has happened to England recently is David Lloyd, whose appointment Illy opposed. The second-best is Nasser Hussain, whose recall Illy set in motion by making him A team captain. There has been too much chopping and changing, not enough patient nurture of players with obvious class - Ramprakash, Crawley, Tufnell, Lewis. The upshot has been a results sheet on which spectacular highs alternate with spectacular lows. Dexter's right: they have a lot in common.
Tim de Lisle is editor of `Wisden Cricket Monthly'.Reuse content