Thoughts of chairman Ray

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: IAN STAFFORD discovers that the dominant force in English cricket is coming out fighting for the summer
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After all the internecine battles within the hierarchy of English cricket one would have assumed that Raymond Illingworth, the chairman of the selectors, might take a guarded approach to any questions directed at him and the rather messy shenanigans of the past few weeks.

Within 30 seconds of our meeting at Lord's it was obvious that the most controversial character in English cricket had decided that the best way to defend was to attack, and this is precisely what he proceeded to do over the next hour and a half.

The tone was set like this. On studying a Test and County Cricket Board video of Cricketing Legends - Ray Illingworth, (which, deliciously, was perched on the shelf next to Ian Botham) I was reminded that the former England captain had come out of retirement to lead Yorkshire to Sunday League victory in 1983 at the age of 50. I made a quick point that, on the basis that he played against the likes of Botham, Gower, Lamb, Gooch and Willis in their prime, he was perhaps not the "old fart" that some assumed.

"I not only played against them," he countered. "I got them all out." There then followed a quick report of each dismissal, recalled to the finest detail. "Botham, caught at cover, Gower caught at mid-off, Lamb lbw trying to sweep me. And I got Viv Richards out. David Lloyd told me the other day that I'd never dismissed him. I told him I had done him twice and told him to check the records. He discovered I was right."

That's some memory. "Well, everyone goes on about Bob Woolmer using a laptop computer to work out everyone's weaknesses in South Africa," he says, pointing to his head. "My laptop's in here. I played cricket in four different decades, I've seen every single international game here since I retired in 1983 through my work with the BBC and the TCCB, and I've watched every county player, so there's no way they can tell me something I don't know about cricket."

Glad we've got that one sorted out. Illingworth sinks further into the chair, preparing for a long and bullish stay at the crease. In which case, we had better have a quick resume of how England have lurched from a promising summer last year against the West Indies to failure in South Africa and disaster in the World Cup.

"A lot of it's been very disappointing," he begins. "Okay, I said the buck stops with me, but I can't play for the players on the field. You try to take as much flak as you can for them off the field, but they haven't played as well as they should have done. We had a good summer, and played well up to the last Test in South Africa, when we gambled by playing an extra bowler. I'll admit that was a mistake, and if we'd stuck to the same format as before we wouldn't have lost, but we went for a win and we can't be criticised for that.

"Then we had a bit of bad luck in the one-dayers, dropped crucial catches and found ourselves falling behind. Playing newcomers in the side in preparation for the World Cup unsettled things as well."

But you were thumped out of sight by the South Africans. You're not the type of person to take that lying down, are you? "As a player, if I'd lost eight on the trot it wouldn't have made any difference to me. I was going to win the next one, but I don't feel all the England players were like that. Some of them clearly lost confidence and it showed in the World Cup.

"It was very upsetting because we didn't perform. We just didn't play anywhere near our potential and there's no excuse for that. Some of the players hurt a lot worse than others. Mike Atherton, for example, took it badly. He was very tired, both mentally and physically. He's not as strong as people think, you now."

Illingworth's standing by now was under intense scrutiny. It was not just that his team were losing, it was also in the way that he handled himself and others around him, notably Devon Malcolm who, most have decided, was poorly treated and hit back later in a tabloid article. I put this point to him. "What Malcolm said was a lot of bloody rubbish," he says. "Eventually you'll read the truth. It hasn't come out yet, and the picture's not been painted fairly. I'm not happy about the way I've come out of it, but people who know me understand it's not quite as it seems."

Perhaps the reason Illingworth has emerged from the Malcolm affair so poorly is that, in his no-nonsense manner, he has rubbed too many of the blazer brigade up the wrong way. "Well, in cricket there's too much whispering down corridors and talking in committees," he continues. "That's not my way of working. If I've got something to say, I'll say it. I don't begrudge people who disagree with me, but I do if they try to stick it in your back."

The Julius Caesar of cricket has a few traitors on his list, but the Brutus figure is MJK Smith, who was defeated by Illingworth when both went up for the chairman's job. "MJK started it all up," he insists. "He wrote letters to every county, so he made a pretty good job at trying to turn people against me. It just makes me more determined." He then points the finger at me. "And I never forget."

It was not enough to prevent Illingworth gaining power, but, just a fortnight ago, the counties turned against him sufficiently enough to ignore his preferences for the selection panel (Brian Bolus and John Edrich), and go for Graham Gooch and David Graveney.

Is Illingworth happy about this? "The chairman of selectors is an important position and I believe that he should have more say in selecting the selectors," he says. "Brian Bolus has worked very hard for me and I think the counties voted against him and Edrich because of me."

Nevertheless, there's no point in continuing the ill-feeling throughout the summer, not when English cricket has to learn how to win again. So what does the Chairman think of his new panel, then?

"I've got nothing against Gooch," he assures me. You know that this is going to be one of those "but" sentences. "I think he can do a job in years to come, but it will be very difficult now because there will be problems over his availability. Essex may say they're prepared to give him the time off he needs as a selector, but I know that if he's getting runs they'll want him with them. I can see a lot of problems. I know for a fact that a few county captains feel that Gooch shouldn't do the job, so it's not just me who thinks this."

In which case, what chance has David Graveney got after he stood against Illingworth this time round before withdrawing? "Graveney was drawn into the Warwickshire situation. They were looking for anyone to oppose me. They would probably have put up Mickey Mouse if they could have done. I've got no problem. I told him he'd been dragged into it."

Predictably Botham, who also attempted to become a selector, and then was put forward by the new manager, David Lloyd, as a motivational figure who should be included within the set-up, is quickly dispatched. "If Botham was brought in the press would swarm around him like flies round a jam pot. There's no doubt about it, it would push Lloyd to one side. Besides, he was not the same player when he was the captain. I was a more positive captain than he was. Responsibility took his natural game away from him, and he didn't inspire people."

So you didn't win a battle with Lloyd over Botham, and you won't insist on winning battles in the selection meetings? "It was bloody stupid. Lloyd said 'fair enough' and that was that. There won't be any trouble with the selectors. We're all grown people and we'll all get on."

Maybe, but what if the other four disagree with your view? "I won't go against them just to be awkward, but I'll have the final say. I'll go with the gut feeling. If I felt strongly about it then I'll go with my view."

And so to India and Pakistan, who will further examine England's questionable credentials. What is Illingworth's blueprint for the summer? "We need players who want to die for England. I have no time for anyone who doesn't want that. One or two have big egos, but if you have to trample on them on the way, then so be it. Sometimes players think they're great before they are, or will never be great, and it gets on my nerves.

"I'm looking to add at least a couple of new, young names to the winter squad. I know who they are, but they have to perform well between now and the Tests. I believe we're two good players away from being on the same level as Australia. We need to bowl sides out twice, remember, and if we had Shane Warne and Allan Donald in our side we'd be up there."

And he's happy with the captain? "There's never been a big rift between me and Atherton. We're never more than a player away in our thinking, but people like to think it."

I playfully suggest that he sometimes leans towards Yorkshire. In return, I get a soliloquy about the white rose county. "Grew up there," he says. "I gave my right arm to play for the county. I've never lived anywhere else but Pudsey all my life. It would suit me right down to the ground if I could play 11 Yorkshiremen and we won the Ashes." He pauses, before adding hurriedly , "But I don't let it influence selection."

All in all, Raymond Illingworth seems to be as strong as ever after a desperate winter, both on and off the field, which made him, of all people, consider giving it all up. "I was fed up, but my family were even worse," he explains. "My wife Shirley has now stopped taking the papers because she got so upset. I didn't enjoy being locked up at my age for over three months in South Africa and the World Cup, and I didn't enjoy the flak.

"Don't forget, I went through it all when I managed Yorkshire. I remember Shirley telling me that the day when I came home from the Yorkshire job and told her I'd quit would be the happiest day of her life.

"I did contemplate quitting a few weeks ago. Shirley said I could pack it in tomorrow. But Fred Titmus helped me decide to stay. When he resigned from the selectors he said: 'I've known Ray for 44 years and, if it's the Ray I know, he won't quit.' And I thought: 'Yes, you're bloody right.' I've never thrown in the towel in my life, and I'm not going to now."

It leaves just one question. He said that he will definitely resign at the end of the summer. There's no chance of a change of mind is there? His answer will make a few around the counties choke on the cornflakes this morning.

"Well, I enjoyed last summer," he said. "If things went well this summer, if we're winning again, and we've reached a settled side, it would be nice to continue. I might well change my mind then. Let's see how it goes."

Enjoy your cornflakes, gentlemen.

ILLINGWORTH

ON GOOCH

'I think he can do a job in years to come, but it will be very difficult now...I can see a lot of problems. 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'

ILLINGWORTH

ON MJK SMITH

'MJK started it all up. He wrote letters to every county, so he made a pretty good job of trying to turn people against me. It just makes me more determined - and I never forget'

ILLINGWORTH

ON GRAVENEY

'Graveney was drawn into the Warwickshire situation. They were looking for anyone to oppose me. They would probably have put up Mickey Mouse if they could have done. I've got no problem. I told him he had been dragged into it'

ILLINGWORTH

ON BOTHAM

'If Botham was brought in, the press would swarm around him like flies around a jam pot. It would push Lloyd to one side. Besides, he was not the same player when he was the captain. I was a more positive captain. Responsibility took his natural game away'

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