Mike Holmans May 3, 2009

Who selects the English team?

Interpreting anything that happens through the prism of the coach being Lord High Everything does us all a disservice

If I were Geoff Miller, I think I’d be a little miffed at the coverage given to the various England squads announced last week. There is scarcely a mention of the national selector who chairs the selection committee and acres devoted to the influence allegedly wielded by the newest addition to the committee, team director Andy Flower, whose imprint we are supposed to be able to discern.

Excuse me? The head coaching honcho, whether you call him coach, team director or Grand Panjandrum, spends his time working with whomever is in the current squad, giving him extremely detailed knowledge of today’s personnel while preventing him gathering much of interest about potential recruits.

Flower won’t have seen Eoin Morgan, Graham Onions or Tim Bresnan play much, if any, cricket over the last two years, so how can his imprint be seen in their selections?

There might be something in the picks of Graham Napier and James Foster since Flower came to the England job from Essex, but they have earned their elevation by performances in last year’s Twenty20 Cup, mostly played when England were busy losing ODIs to New Zealand and Flower was presumably fully occupied trying to inculcate the basics of shot-selection into Ian Bell.

Geoff Miller, James Whitaker and Ashley Giles are the men who watch county cricket and work out who looks ready for the big time, so why aren’t they given any credit for shaping the new-look England sides? I don’t see Flower’s squads here – I see Miller’s.

We became used to the coach wielding immense power in the Duncan Fletcher era, but it was a power that he did not really want. Reading Nasser Hussain’s account of selection meetings, it is apparent that the official selectors were weak and dithery, the inevitable consequence of which was that the one selector with a clearly thought-out view ended up getting his own way most of the time. Fletcher himself realised after a time that he had become so close to the regular members of the squad that he could not be dispassionate and stepped down as a selector.

The most important influence a coach can have on selection is essentially negative. After working with players identified by the selectors, the detailed knowledge gained enables him to identify the ones to keep, the ones to discard and the ones to send back to domestic cricket to rediscover their technique, desire or ideal waist measurement. What he can’t do is give more than a specification for the type of player the team will need to replace the ones who are not currently measuring up: it is the selectors’ job to identify them, not the coach’s.

The Schofield Report produced following the debacles in the winter of 2006-7 identified the selection process as needing a more professional structure. That has now been implemented, and it is already evident that the new players getting picked have been carefully watched. They have good records in domestic cricket, but not necessarily the best. They are presumably being chosen because they appear to offer that extra something which lifts a player to success at international level – and that can only be spotted by people who see them play, which the national team coach gets precious little opportunity to do.

While I disagree with much of my fellow columnist Michael 'Fox' Jeh’s thesis about international coaches being useful only as modes of transport, I agree very much that the cult of the head coach is becoming dangerously fetishistic, especially in England where people seem obsessed with finding the new Fletcher in the same way as we used to hanker after the new Botham.

Interpreting anything that happens through the prism of the coach being Lord High Everything does us all a disservice. Cricket is too complex for supremos. Credit Flower with the axing of Bell and Harmison if you like, but let’s praise (or blame) Miller, Giles and Whitaker for the players called up instead. Hold Flower to account for what the selected players do, but pay proper attention to how the selectors go about their business too.