Why selectors need an automatic pilot

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The Independent Online
IN CALIFORNIA this weekend a collection of the world's most affluent sportsmen are engaged in a procedure of extreme rarity. It is not that they are scrambling for a share of a million dollars in prize-money - there is, unfortunately, nothing rare about that in sport these days. What makes their endeavours different is that they are picking themselves for a team.

The final composition of the American and European golf sides to contest the Ryder Cup next month will be largely decided by the outcome of the US PGA Championship in Los Angeles. It is not much good the candidates' straining to catch the selectors' eye, much less buying them a drink, and neither is it worth anyone's lobbying on their behalf. The main body of the teams will be chosen purely and simply on the cold facts of their success in competition over the past year.

As it happens, the final two players in each team of 12 are selected by the respective captains and you may be aware that there has been much whingeing on behalf of the star players on the fringe of the European team that there should be more of these wild cards available. Quite properly, their pleas have been rebuffed. The only way to ensure a place is to get out there and earn it yourself.

You may think there are better ways of determining a man's value to his country, but in golf the main measure is the size of the winnings he wrests from the weekly battles of which there is none more intense or competitive in all sport. As harshly materialistic as this may be, it is the ultimate in professional judgement, and although the mechanics of this particular process are possible only in a game like golf, the principle of an automatic selection system must appeal to any major sport. Just think of all the trouble and torment it would save.

No part of sport causes more bickering and bad feeling than the selection of international teams. No other aspect of our sporting life has soured the past century more often than controversies over which players deserve to be chosen to represent us; and those doomed with the task of making the selection are often to be numbered among the most wretched of sporting figures.

The inescapable fact is that you can't select teams without breaking hearts, fracturing egos or sowing resentment far and wide. When was the last time an England Test team didn't raise growls of discontent when it was announced (come to Glamorgan and we'll tell you all about it)? The present one is no exception; ask Alan Wells.

If teams were chosen less on whim and more on objective or statistical analyses, players would have little cause to question their fate and those who make it into the team would have the confidence of knowing they had an undeniable right to be there on merit - not just the questionable faith of the man picking the team.

There is similar pressure on the men doing the picking. A long line of ashen-faced managers of the England football team would have led far less persecuted lives if the players they attempted to mould into successful teams had been chosen by a source other than their own besieged brains. Selection by one professional may be an improvement on the decades during which our representative teams were pieced together by amateurs on large and generally clueless committees but the responsibility remains a mighty burden.

It may be no coincidence that countries like Wales and Ireland with far fewer players - thus far fewer selection problems - have frequently performed above expec- tations in international football while a country with England's superior playing strength has even more frequently performed below expectations. Give a manager too many to choose from and he will be in danger of strangling himself trying to fit players into some theoretical pattern. Give him a bunch already selected and he will concentrate on what he's probably better suited to do; organising his players to make the maximum of their strengths.

How you would arrive at a self-selecting team in the various sports requires far more time and brainpower than is immediately available. The first- class averages in cricket would seem the closest comparison to golf's Order of Merit but averages can be manipulated by the unscrupulous and aggregates would be preferable as a reliable guide. A more intriguing suggestion would be for each county captain to nominate his 12 and the votes totted up. Election instead of selection might not be too frivolous an idea.

Football and rugby have not attracted enough statistical attention in the past to give selectors any assistance. Apart from scorers, there is little data about accuracy of passing, skill at going round an opponent, tackling, etc, that would be useful in assessing players. Oddly, it has taken the new craze of Fantasy Football to make us more conscious of judging players on statistical value rather than mere impressions of their value to a team. It would not take an Einstein to formulate a way in which players could be scientifically observed for indications of their international potential.

Golf's great advantage in needing nothing more complicated than an adding machine to do this makes it surprising that some of our top golfers are suddenly rubbishing a selection system that has done the old continent proud over the last 10 years during which we've held the cup for six years to the American's four. Injury and fickle form are tilting the odds in favour of the Americans but by no means justify the pessimism that leading players like Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie have been openly expressing. Perhaps Europe should immediately adopt Montgomerie's suggestion that all 12 members of the team should be selected. Then we can leave out all defeatists.

If Europe's captain, Bernard Gallacher, has trouble sifting through the star names who haven't earned enough points, it is hardly the system's fault. I suspect Gallacher would prefer all 12 to have to qualify by their earnings and he would be sitting back watching players busting a gut to play their way into the team; not expecting to get in by reputation.

THE FLOW of money through athletics and into the pockets of the leading performers is mostly subterranean and thus very difficult to follow. Surely it would be easier to stack up the cash on the other side of the finishing tape on a first-come-first-served basis. Bizarrely, at the World Championships, each winner is getting a luxury Mercedes while the second doesn't even get a Lada.

More worrying is the lack of inspiration that sporting excellence is providing these days. According to the British Medical Journal the nation has never been more bone idle. Obesity has doubled in 10 years; our participation in active sports is drooping; fewer than a fifth of adults walk two miles or more in a month.

Maybe that sums up modern life. The finest physical specimens are over in Gothenburg running for cars while the rest of us can't even bother to run for a bus.