Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator
In England it is raining, which is hardly news. "April is the cruellest month" but not this year, it isn't. This year that title conclusively belongs to May. After winter's long nights, the grey, the wet, the wind, the chill are all our enemies. Poor cricket, such a struggle to capture hearts and minds when football is everywhere and Harry Kane wants to leave Tottenham and Sergio Aguero is leaving Manchester City. Then a 50-year-old goes and wins golf's PGA Championship, which really does amaze, especially when he hits the ball 366 yards down the fairway. Phil Mickelson longer and better than the lot of them. Wow! Age waits for some men.
The County Championship has been streaming, and more recently shown on Sky TV too. The cricket has been pretty good, though the element of star quality is missing from the daily fare. One headline-maker has been 45-year-old Darren Stevens, who only the other day blasted 190 for Kent in the blink of an eye (including 15 sixes) and then knocked over Marnus Labuschagne with the new nut. The former England captain Chris Cowdrey texted with the suggestion that Stevens might be county cricket's best ever allrounder. I offered Mike Procter as an alternative but he was talking Poms. He added that Stevens' golf handicap is +2, so he's a talented chap and younger than Phil by a distance. Perhaps he will play for England at 50.
Chris Silverwood announced a 15-man party for the summer's first Test, which begins on Wednesday at Lord's. It is a race for summer to get there.
James Anderson, soon to be 39, is in it. Stuart Broad too, a slip of a lad approaching his 35th birthday. No doubt 40 is the new 30, and so on.
The interest was as much in those not included as in those who will unpack in the home dressing room on bank holiday Monday. It is a team shorn of Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Jonny Bairstow, Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali, who are rested! To add injury to this insult, both Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, are missing - Archer worryingly so. His elbow problem pre-dates the coronavirus and seemingly will keep him out for a couple more months. Stokes bust a finger at the IPL and should be fixed up soon enough.
Most of us on the outside don't get the "rested" thing. Take Curran, just a boy really, eager to bat, bowl and change the world. He was sent home early from India by England, arrived back in Mumbai to play about half the IPL, and since its postponement hasn't been seen again. How can he need a rest? And what of Woakes, the other allrounder who could/should have been parachuted into the Stokes slot? Not a game for England since last season and only three T20 matches in the IPL for last summer's PCA Player of the Year. Of course, bubble life takes its toll but mentally, not physically. These guys would rather be playing cricket for county and country than putting their feet up. I don't buy them being kept fresh for campaigns to come; it makes far too many assumptions. I get the need to have a large group of cricketers well versed in the demands and atmosphere of the international game. I don't get more than a change or two at a time. Long-term thinking has become a bane. Winning now, especially after the year we have just had, is very important.
Silverwood has said that his elevation to lord and high master of all things England team will be put to the most extreme test throughout this next year and admitted that failure could lead to his removal. "If the team underperforms, it's me for the high jump," he said. Well, maybe, maybe not. What if Silverspoons, as the boys affectionately know him, is a damn good coach and a rubbish selector? Why get rid of the coach in him?
It might be that New Zealand, or India, do some damage to England's confidence long before the coin hangs in the air at the Gabba in December. Will that be the fault of Silverwood the selector or Silverspoons the coach? Or of the captain? Or of the players? Is that not a judgement best taken from a distance? And is Ashley Giles, the managing director of England men's cricket, who was behind the change, distant enough? Will he be prepared to kick "his" man in the guts if all goes belly up? From my distance, and given the opposition in waiting, the best side needs to be on the park most of the time and with a coach it trusts as one of their own.
Which, sort of, brings us to Ed Smith. It was Smith who instigated the rest and rotation policy and Silverwood who has pursued it. The plan is a good one as long as it remains flexible, which, so far, it has not. Buttler, Bairstow and Ali each left India or Sri Lanka for home at different times, but annoyingly when in good form and with the capacity to influence the India series. These departures made it appear that the law was an ass. Did they cost Smith his job? No. Smith probably cost Smith his job. The senior guys didn't take to either his stubborn independence or self-styling. He's a super-smart man, too clever by half said some, rather unfairly. Mike Brearley is a smart man but his greater gift is the common touch. Perhaps Ed came over as aloof.
Boy, the axe fell quick. One minute the dressing room in Chennai, the next scanning situations vacant. He did a darn good job - the best of selectors for his imagination, eye for detail and faith in talent (almost always).
My own view is that all teams need a barometer outside of their bubble (the old one not the new one, though it applies to both) which includes opinion, advice, and best of all, insight into the word on the street. The trouble with teams is the subjective nature of the decision-making. Businesses don't have non-execs on their board for no reason.
An independent selection panel - historically a group of five that included the captain but not the coach - used to choose the England team. The change in 2018 to a national selector with one off-sider and the coach - albeit in close communication with the captain - was right for a job that includes crucial decisions on central contracts; choosing England and England A teams in many formats; selecting tour parties; announcing squads and support staff for specialist training camps; and numerous other extraneous areas of input, all at an incredibly challenging time. This is not necessarily the job of one man, especially one who is already working 24/7 to get the best from the players currently in favour. Of course, there is now a raft of scouts to support Silverwood but the identification of talent needs at least an element of eyes-only from the supremo, otherwise the buck doesn't actually stop with him at all. He needs to watch county cricket but there is very little time to do so.
Certainly there was tension between Smith and Giles. Perhaps Giles felt threatened by Smith's intellect and vision. Smith was the architect of data-driven selection and had the capacity to both relate it to talent and give convincing explanations of his conclusions to the outside world. Appointed by Andrew Strauss, Smith had licence to go forth and explore with a chain of command that was clearly understood by them both. Under Giles that chain of command began to break and the only way to fix it was to end it.
Dobell: Smith departure about 'personality' rather than structure
It is too simplistic to say that cricket should follow the football and rugby template of selection. For one thing, the game takes an age to play, and therefore a long journey to watch a promising young cricketer may result in a waste of time should someone else make a big hundred or take all the wickets. Equally, identifying talent and temperament in three or four skill sets requires selectors with those skill sets themselves. In addition, it is well enough documented that insecure players are less likely to talk about their problems with a coach who has sole responsibility for choosing the team. Equally the coach may wrongly assume that a confrontational dressing-room personality betrays a lack of faith in the team's tactics, methods, approach, etc.
I doubt that many, if any, national selectors have endeared themselves to the players over the years. To some degree, that's the point really: the hard decisions have been the responsibility of judges outside the dressing room. Broad is no fan of Smith but his disenchantment when left out, both in Barbados in 2019 and at the Ageas Bowl at the start of last summer, fired him to greater heights and has prolonged his career in an England shirt. Isn't that the point too?
Anyway, the deed is done. What shall we expect from this rearranged England team? The flair players are mainly absent and question marks continue to hover over the opening batters and spinners. Much will depend on Joe Root's run tally, and Anderson and Broad will be handy, if not devastating, at home - no change there, then. Ben Foakes' appallingly bad luck continues, and James Bracey, on debut, will keep wicket. (Why not Buttler or Bairstow?) Ollie Robinson is a nice, tidy bowler at fast-medium, Craig Overton has put on a yard, and Olly Stone can be decidedly slippery. England need one of these to kick on, ditto Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope, who have it them to be the real deal.
New Zealand will give them nothing and are one of the few sides to visit England who wallow in the conditions. Kane Williamson's team has a good mix of young and old, proven and promising. The cricket they play seems to reflect the best of three exceptional modern-day New Zealand captains - Stephen Fleming (intelligence), Brendon McCullum (free spirit) and Williamson (calm efficiency). They are, we must acknowledge, the No. 1 and 2-ranked team in one-day and Test match cricket respectively - a remarkable achievement, given the small population and lack of financial muscle - and therefore begin, if not as favourites, certainly at even money. They first play two Tests against England and then go into battle against India in the final of the World Test Championship at the Ageas Bowl on June 18. Who is to say the pain they surely suffered when England pipped them at the post - "the barest of margins" - in the World Cup final at Lord's on July 14, 2019, won't be eased by the claiming of this newly invested title? Not me. No way.
I have written the last paragraphs of this ramble a full day after those that precede them. It is raining again. Come on summer, buck up!