January 22, 2008

Fight the fudge

England's selectors need to think more clearly

Before it all went wrong: David Graveney, Geoff Miller (seated) and Michael Vaughan during the 2005 Ashes © Getty Images
Many England supporters tend to regard the selectors as a bunch of jokers. Now it's practically official. The first full-time selection job in England's 131-year history has gone to a man who makes his living as an after dinner-speaker, cracking jokes to roomfuls of drunken men.

Geoff Miller may or may not pick a good team, but at least he should give good quote. He may well go out of his way not to be funny at first, but he is at least a professional communicator. We can probably rely on him to avoid the clotted jargon that David Graveney used to spread over his thoughts.

If the affable Graveney had a fault, that was one. And another, which may have been related, was a tendency to blur issues that needed to be clear. England's selection habits improved quite a lot over the 11 long years of Graveney's chairmanship, but he never quite lost his taste for fudge.

You can see it in the last difficult decision he faced: what to do about the batting for the Test tour of New Zealand. The batsmen had a poor tour of Sri Lanka, failing to cash in on flat pitches. Something had to be done. Graveney, along with Miller and Peter Moores, decided to drop Ravi Bopara (who made his Test debut, played in all three Tests, and flopped), retain Owais Shah (who was in the squad but didn't get a Test) and bring Andrew Strauss back.

Strauss is being recalled for the wrong reason: his slip catching was missed, but his batting wasn't at all - the opening pair, Alastair Cook and Michael Vaughan, were better balanced and more successful without him. He is also being recalled at the wrong time. If a senior player is ditched for not performing, he has to go out and and perform before he is recalled. Strauss, by all accounts - well, Graveney's - knuckled down and worked hard in the nets at Middlesex. He's an admirable character who was treated roughly by England when he lost the captaincy after winning his only Test series, against Pakistan. But that's not a reason to recall him now. The place he will probably occupy in the next three Tests should have gone to Shah or Mark Ramprakash.

Although Graveney has gone, the tendency to get the thinking wrong remains in the system. You can see it in the appointment of one of Miller's new co-selectors. One of the very worst selections of recent times was that of Ashley Giles for the first two Tests of the 2006-07 Ashes, ahead of Monty Panesar, who was (a) a better bowler, (b) fit, (c) in the team at the time, and (d) a mystery to the Aussies. Giles was picked for being a good egg and a doughty batsman, in the same way that Strauss is now being picked for his character and his catching. The result was disastrous. So who is the new selector? Ashley Giles.

So the first hope for the Miller panel is that they won't fudge decisions. The second is that they will buck a curious trend in selection: that the more experts you have in one facet of the game, the more likely you are to mess it up

No sooner had Giles retired than he was showered with job offers. He has already accepted one and become Warwickshire's director of cricket. This could be an inspired appointment, but it's a risk. Giles has never managed anything, and he has barely had any experience of captaincy. Even if he is a natural at management, it will be, as Grav would have said, a steep learning curve. And it got a bit steeper when Giles was also asked to be a selector. Has he picked teams before? Not as far as we know. Again, he could be a natural, but the chances are that he will be doing his apprenticeship in public. At the same time as doing his other apprenticeship. England hopefuls have long known that runs made on telly count double. Now the same will be true of runs made against Warwickshire. So will runs made on telly against Warwickshire count quadruple?

There are other reasons not to appoint Giles. He is a great friend of Michael Vaughan, yet he may have to decide whether to strip Vaughan of the captaincy. His decency might even be a problem then. It's possible to be both a good egg and a square peg.

So the first hope for the Miller panel is that they won't fudge decisions. The second is that they will buck a curious trend in selection: that the more experts you have in one facet of the game, the more likely you are to mess it up. England currently have a wicketkeeper manager for the first time, in Moores, and another wicketkeeper among his assistants, in Andy Flower. Yet somehow they have contrived to make eight changes of wicketkeeper in 18 months (Jones, Read, Jones, Read and Prior in Tests; Jones, Read, Nixon, Prior and Mustard in one-dayers), and to head for New Zealand with two Test beginners - Mustard and Tim Ambrose. Flower himself might be a more reliable option.

With Graveney and Miller, the selection panel of recent years had plenty of spin know-how. Yet several of the players they treated most cursorily were spinners. Ten specialist slow bowlers played for England in the last eight years, since Miller joined Graveney on the panel, and only two of them were given ten Tests: Giles and Panesar. The other eight totalled 31 Tests and 45 wickets between them at an average of 60. See if you can name them (answers at the bottom). Some of their fellow spinners - Jason Brown, Graeme Swann - weren't even that lucky: they went on tours without playing a Test.

Now there are still two spinners on the panel, with Giles joining Miller. They are going to have to be better at picking spinners than Graveney was. Scyld Berry, the sage of the English press, thinks England's best chance in the 2009 Ashes lies in preparing turning pitches, to thwart Australia's possible four-man pace attack, and playing two spinners. Right now, it's a little hard to envisage.

Quiz answers: Gareth Batty (7 Tests), Richard Dawson (7), Robert Croft (6), Shaun Udal (4), Ian Salisbury (3), Chris Schofield (2), Phil Tufnell (1), Ian Blackwell (1).

Tim de Lisle is the author of Young Wisden, reviewed here, and a former editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. His website is www.timdelisle.com