'Being a selector is about spotting strength of character'
Michael Atherton recently said he felt that the role of national selector was more important than that of a national coach. That said, most armchair supporters would argue it's a pretty easy job. Who's right?
Well, Michael always was very astute! I had a great working relationship with him when he was England captain - one of the most courageous cricketers we've ever had. In the main I would not disagree with the view that, up to a point, selection is straightforward - in that most people could name the majority of an XI. However, there is a lot more to the job than writing down a series of names, although I have always been prone to a list. Ask my selectorial colleagues.
What are the qualities you need to be able to identify the final pieces of the jigsaw?
It was more driven by the quality of the individual, the strength of character. It's about being able to spot that. After all, with respect to someone who's never played Test cricket, you're asking him to play in a completely different arena. How's he going to cope with thousands of people watching, with probing and at times hurtful commentators dissecting your game?
Who you seek counsel from will dictate the quality of your selections. In my case, I had recently finished playing and watched a lot of county cricket. If I went to speak to a county coach I'd ask them about the opposition, not their own players. There's a danger they could be blinkered. But I engaged with quite a lot of other people: a group of correspondents who only watched county cricket, umpires, who I thought were good sources, captains and directors of cricket. It would be just: "Who's impressed you?" It wouldn't be more precise than that, really. If the same names kept cropping up, that gave me a bit of a clue of who was in form. Obviously statistics play their part but that's not the whole picture.
I also enjoyed going on a couple of A tours to see the next batch of players. You'd be able to get a bit closer to the players, understand how they ticked. When you're at a county match, coaches and players are just getting on with their job. They don't need people from the ECB wandering in and out of the dressing room. They'd say: "Why's Grav here?"
Given your fairly collegiate approach, is it fair to say you didn't pick up a lot from your predecessor, Ray Illingworth?
I've explained my system, and though I have the greatest respect for him as a player and captain, his era was not the same. In my view, a lot of things had to change. For instance, the selectors used to have a meal with the players the night before a Test, and I couldn't think of anything worse than that. They're heading for one of the biggest days of their lives, do they really want to sit next to people they hardly know, making polite chit-chat? They just want to chill with their mates. So I scrapped that.
And selection meetings tended to be quite lavish dinners that the captain was asked to come to. Again, I didn't think that was right. It was there for the selectors, really, not the captain or coach. These guys spent precious little time at home as it was. Technology had improved and we didn't need to drag people out of their environments unnecessarily. That changed, too.
I suppose the chairman of selectors' relationship with the coach was vital. David Lloyd was a pretty emotional guy, Duncan Fletcher fairly stoic. So how did their differing personas play out in selection?
They brought different ideas. I'd played against Bumble. He'd umpired games I'd played in, and I knew he was very gregarious and got on with people within the game. He was English, extremely patriotic, and he wanted to instil that passion within the team. Duncan not being English was not a problem, because the ECB appointed him. Understandably, he's not going to be so patriotic, but from a technical point of view he was outstanding, particularly as a batting coach. He had very strong relationships with his captains but beyond the dressing room he found it difficult to express his opinions.
With Bumble, you'd know exactly what he was thinking. It was probably marginally easier in conversation with him, because he was very open. To gain Duncan's trust was hard. He made some quite derogatory remarks about me, and I could challenge some of them factually, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Reading extracts of his book, there seemed a common theme that he was not at fault. And if he was talking about selection, the fault would inevitably be mine.
Although not especially on top of goings-on in county cricket, Fletcher frequently gets credit for his selection hunches, with Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan for instance.
See, I would challenge that from a factual point of view. Duncan certainly pinpointed Trescothick after a fantastic innings against Glamorgan [when Fletcher was coach there], but I knew the Trescothick family well, living not far away in Bristol. I'd played against his dad and was well aware of his capabilities.
I'd challenge the story around Vaughan. He'd been on an A tour to Australia that I'd managed. Nobody's solely the driving force for any selection, because it's a democracy. But for him to claim that this was two rabbits out of the bag would be wide off the mark.
Is it difficult, then, if you're carrying the can for the result, but because of the democratic or collegiate approach, your gut feeling isn't ultimately reflected in the final XI?
I remember saying to Geoff Miller [Graveney's successor] when he started: "With this job it's pretty simple: if we win, the players get the credit, but if we lose it's our fault. If you're happy with those terms, crack on."
The Australians have tended to have a different view of the inclusion of the captain and coach as selectors. They're more inclusive now, but for a very long time they didn't. Their view was: how can a coach have an honest discussion with a player when the player knows the coach is responsible for selection? I can understand that, but it's probably not realistic. Even if the coach doesn't have a selector's badge on his forehead, the captain will speak to him unofficially anyway.
I would say, to whoever was in the room, whatever structure we had: look, we're going to have differences of opinion, it's a democracy, but whatever we decide, we decide, and we all buy into it when we leave the room. No one was quoted as saying: "Well, we picked him, but I had a different view."
How did central contracts change things, selection-wise? Was there a temptation to stick with the centrally contracted group rather than look beyond it?
Nasser [Hussain] once said it was harder to get out of the England team than to get into it, but we did look beyond the centrally contracted players. I started in an era when they didn't have them at all. Then they had sort of quasi-central contracts before they came in properly. It was definitely the right way to go. It required some delicate discussions, but the hardest thing at the time was getting the county members to understand that there's just too much cricket. There were teething problems, but now I think the county member does accept that their star player won't be seen very often.
Given everything that happened with Kevin Pietersen, how big a factor in selectors' thinking is dressing-room harmony?
Kevin Pietersen's situation has been discussed at length, and I haven't really got anything to add, although having been the person who first selected him, during my tenure I found him a perfectly good guy to work with.
But what has made a big difference is social media. It has transformed the landscape. The world is smaller. People in the public eye have got to be more responsible. Media coverage is so vast, and journalists will probably know more about what goes on in the dressing room than 20 years ago.
The overriding responsibility of the selectors is to pick the best team to represent the country. However, as I've mentioned, there are lots of factors taken into consideration in order to arrive at the best team, and it would be naïve to think that dressing-room harmony and how people interact with each other isn't part of that process. That's part of the information you would seek from people: is he a good team player? How does he get on with everybody? Does he take energy out of the team or put it in? It's not just about runs and wickets.
Which was more difficult: picking Test teams throughout the summer or selecting a winter squad knowing that, injuries aside, those were your 15 or 16 players?
I think it's easier knowing players are on hand. Again, the world's a smaller place and getting people there to cover for injuries is easier. The itineraries are getting shorter, however, and in the past they'd have one side playing the Tests and another playing the up-country games. They're taking smaller groups away. On the last trip to the West Indies, Jonny Bairstow's only game was actually against England. The success of a trip is really dependent on how the guys who don't play join in with everybody. One of the best examples that I can remember is someone like Paul Nixon. People would say he's not the best wicketkeeper in the country, or whatever, but as a team player he was outstanding.
What was your relationship with the media like down the years? Did you read the papers much?
I learned some harsh lessons when I was captain of Gloucestershire, and got very sensitive about some stuff written in the local press. I took the view that we needed to work with the media. If you're reasonable with them, you hope they'll be reasonable with you. That doesn't mean you won't be criticised, but have an air of cooperation. That said, there were one or two I didn't get along with. I had some interesting discussions with Robin Marlar, the former Sussex captain and Sunday Times correspondent. He took an instant dislike to me: "How can someone who's never played international cricket be a selector?"
I would differentiate between the people who went around doing county cricket week in week out and the guys who did international cricket and either didn't have the time or the inclination to watch county cricket, but would then write some pretty strong stuff about whether a bloke could play or not, when I knew they had never seen him play. I found that a bit hard to swallow.
Did you ever leak to the press?
No. Going back to the first question, if people were ringing me on the morning of the announcement, indicating that they knew a lot, I'd just give them the options: "We need a spinner, and these are the guys who are bowling well in county cricket, if you didn't know", which they probably didn't. But no, we didn't leak. Often the press just takes a bit of a punt. It's not a libellous thing to suggest one guy might play.
What about dropping players? There are dozens of stories of cricketers from the 1970s and '80s finding out whether or not they were in the England team by listening to the radio. The whole communication set-up has changed, but I guess that's still a very difficult part of the job: the dreaded phone call...?
In my tenure, I can safely say I rang every person who was selected, and every person who wouldn't be playing the next match. I don't know what it feels like because I haven't been selected to play for England, but you can imagine the pure elation, sometimes the shock, of being told you'd been selected.
The reverse side of it was hard. And it got harder to tell people. I was chairman in 1997, and only finished playing in 1994, so I was making decisions on people I played against, or played with. Delivering bad news to friends is tough. And it's actually harder around a World Cup scenario, because it's a four-year cycle. The disappointment is greater. Some of the conversations were short, I would say. And at times they did affect the relationship beyond the phone call, but if there had been a chilling then in time it gets better.
Which individual selections do you look back on and think: you know, I (or we) got that one wrong? Or ones that give you the most satisfaction?
I don't really want to go down that route. It's unfair on the players involved. One thing's for sure: we made some decisions that we believed were for the right reasons that didn't work out. Sometimes it's more than just an individual's performance. At the same time, you think a specific player has what it takes to succeed, the mental strength to back his own ability and understand that's what got him picked in the first place, and not reinvent the wheel. I think there is a difference between batting and bowling, from a selection point of view. Batting is a harder discipline to judge as a selector, because there are so many other things that can happen: run-out, bad decisions, good ball, human error…
So, there are not necessarily best selections, because I wouldn't want to put them in a running order, but I was becoming more driven by picking guys who maximised their ability. And these were qualities that Nasser had, that Mike Atherton had - players who were selected way before I was involved - or someone like a Paul Collingwood. Then again, the batting order that played against New Zealand at The Oval in 1999 is one of those things that would cause you to wake up with hot sweats in the middle of the night: Mullally, Tufnell, Giddins… They must have thought, God, England have lost the plot.
What about the decision to make Andrew Flintoff captain for the 2006-07 Ashes rather than Andrew Strauss? Is that an instance where you think: we got that one wrong?
There's no doubt that during my tenure this was one of the most difficult and time-consuming decisions I was party to. It was a very lengthy discussion. It went over two days, two separate meetings in Birmingham. Hindsight would suggest that Straussy was the best man for the job and should have been selected as captain. But I would suggest that the most influential factor in that series was the number of injuries and absentees we had - Vaughan, Simon Jones, Trescothick - which prevented us from replicating the sort of cricket we'd played in 2005. What is of some consolation to me as an individual is that Andrew Strauss went on to be an outstanding captain for his country.
Talking of 2005 and 1999, did people on the street recognise you more during the good times or the bad?
I don't think you'd be wandering the streets too often when you'd lost. You'd certainly know about it. My teenage children became involved. There's no age when you're not responsive to criticism, so that wasn't pleasant for them. But they knew what pride I had in being involved with the national team: it's the greatest honour that I've ever had. But if I'd tried to stop everyone in the street who'd walked past me and made a snide remark, you'd be there forever.
Did the end of your tenure leave any sourness?
It did for a while, because I really enjoyed it. I'd be lying to you if I said it didn't leave its mark. No one likes to be sacked. I think my family were pretty relieved, because the job was all-consuming. My job now as national performance manager - which is to oversee the performance pathway from school and county junior cricket through to England - is in many ways more rewarding, helping to identify and nurture the best talent in the country so they can go and fulfil their dreams. People say, "That's not a real job!" I merely reflect on the fact I have been very fortunate to be involved at all levels in shaping the future of English cricket.
Scott Oliver tweets here