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A history of selection

Sins of commission

Richard Hobson
Ed Smith poses for a portrait  •  PA Images/Getty

Ed Smith poses for a portrait  •  PA Images/Getty

With his side stumbling through the Ashes summer of 1989, captain David Gower looked ahead to another forlorn selection meeting. "I'm going down to London," he said, "to help pick a few names out of the hat for England." It was typically flippant - black comedy with an edge. And it sprang to mind last year when Ashley Giles, then ECB managing director of men's cricket, abolished Ed Smith's role as national selector.
For over a century, selection had been governed by instinct and hunch - or, as the more cynical might put it, by guesswork and hope. Now, gigabytes of data and footage were said to be turning a haphazard art into a well-honed science, the technology backed by a scouting system of "multiple eyes, multiple times", to quote the ECB's performance director, Mo Bobat.
Across 2018 alone, some 209 players were scrutinised in 1,213 reports. Instead of plucking the name of the next bowler from a topper, Gower would have had to highlight them in an Excel spreadsheet. By transferring Smith's work to head coach Chris Silverwood, Giles oversaw the most radical shift in selection since a national committee first met in 1899. The intervening 122 years had witnessed changing numbers and personnel, the recycling of ideas (and players), brainwaves and brainfades, inspiration and desperation. What never altered was the need for a thick skin, or - better - results.
Until 1899, home teams were chosen by the host venue, and overseas teams by tour organisers. Bias, prejudice and vested interest were not unknown. In 1901, Lord Hawke, the first chairman, left out George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes from an Ashes tour because he wanted them fit for Yorkshire the following summer. In Sins of Omission, a study of the selectors up to 1990, Allen Synge wondered how "this man of manifestly divided loyalties ever got the job, or contrived to retain it for a decade".
Hawke's fractious relationship with captain Archie MacLaren reached a nadir in 1902. For the Old Trafford Test against Australia, his panel spitefully omitted three apparent certainties in C. B. Fry, Gilbert Jessop and S. F. Barnes, after MacLaren had independently summoned Barnes, his Lancashire team-mate, for the previous Test, at Sheffield. When MacLaren saw the squad for Manchester, he famously exclaimed: "My God, look what they've given me." In protest, he blindsided Hawke, omitting Hirst from the final XI, and choosing the inferior Fred Tate. The pawn in a private squabble, Tate dropped a crucial catch and was last out, with England needing four to win.
Captains since have generally held their tongue - unlike the media and public who, as Silverwood knows after the latest Ashes horror, are happy to pile in. Selection, well… we may not play international cricket, but we can all scribble 11 names on the back of an envelope. And some of the harshest words have been written in these pages. When the panel (led, in the temporary absence of Hawke, by Henry Leveson Gower) picked only one fast bowler for The Oval in 1909, Wisden editor Sydney Pardon accused them of touching "the confines of lunacy". The phrase has been much cited since. "Experts," as Pardon wrote, "occasionally do strange things."
Perhaps Fry's experience of such whims - and not, as was thought, his love of the Romans - tipped him towards autocracy in 1912. At his insistence as captain, the committee met just once all summer. "This did not provide much fodder for the scribes, pharisees and dramatists," Fry recalled, "but it worked." To a point, yes. England did win an underwhelming triangular series against Australia and South Africa, but a dispute had left the Australians without key players, Victor Trumper among them.
Fry had discovered one of the secrets of selection: pick a summer when the opposition are weak. Immediately after the First World War, they were anything but. Australia arrived in 1921 after whitewashing England 5-0 the previous winter, provoking panic in Henry Foster's panel. Thirty players represented England, still a record, and nothing spoke of chaos better than the choice of Lionel Tennyson. At one in the morning just before the Lord's Test, he was enjoying a night at the Embassy Club in Bond Street when the message arrived. "If the selectors had informed me a bit earlier," he said, "I should have gone to bed at a timely hour and knocked off a cigar or two." Although England lost their seventh Test in a row, Tennyson saw through his fug to score 74 not out, and was made captain.
By now, selection was a national pastime. "The business has become almost as exciting as the match itself," wrote the News Chronicle in 1930, amid debate around Percy Chapman's future as captain. And if the public thought they could do a better job than the selectors, occasionally the selectors thought they could do a better job than the players. In 1926, after more than five years away from Test cricket, committee member Rhodes agreed to a comeback, aged 48. Match figures of six for 79 in the decisive Ashes game at The Oval vindicated him: England won by 289 runs.
Freddie Brown went further in 1953, when he became the only chairman ever to pick himself. Despite his eminence, Brown, an amateur, played under Len Hutton, who had become England's first full-time professional captain the previous year. There was a sense of an old social battle being refought, and the pair took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement to say they were happy with the decision, which only increased the suspicion they were not.
Two years later, Gubby Allen, another Establishment figure, took the chair, and cultivating a good relationship with the press became a priority. "He learned the technique of dropping the occasional deliberate leak," recalled E. W. Swanton, the Daily Telegraph's cricket correspondent. Quite how much to reveal has proved a continuing challenge. But Doug Insole probably went too far in 1967, after Colin Cowdrey pipped Brian Close to the Test captaincy. Insole let slip not only that Cowdrey had won "by the narrowest possible majority", but admitted personally plumping for Close.
Alec Bedser proved as resilient a selector as he had been a seamer. He served 23 years in all, ending in 1985, and 12 as chairman, both records, and could claim perhaps the most inspired pick of all time: 33-year-old David Steele, the grey-haired batsman who made such an impression repelling Lillee and Thomson in 1975 that he became the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Bedser's successor, Peter May, cut an aloof figure. Frank Keating called him "the wintry-faced mandarin", while Ian Botham described his panel as "gin-swilling dodderers". In 1988, May got through four captains, including Chris Cowdrey, his godson, and 23 players in total. Robin "Snarler" Marlar evoked Oliver Cromwell when he told the selectors: "In the name of God, go." Like the Rump Parliament, May went.
Yet this was a model of stability compared with what came next. Ted Dexter was now at the helm and, with news of a rebel South Africa tour breaking midway through the 1989 summer, England picked 29 men to face Australia. For someone who worked in PR, Dexter was comically accident-prone. Trying to dredge positives from an innings defeat at Trent Bridge, he said: "Who can forget Malcolm Devon?" Devon Malcolm was not alone in his bemusement. In The Independent, Martin Johnson asked: "Who can forget Ted Lord?"
Public desire to play selector took its ultimate course in 1993, when MCC members pushed for a vote of no confidence after Gower, Jack Russell and Ian Salisbury were overlooked for a tour of India. No matter that MCC had ceded power as appointing authority in 1969, or that tours had not been held under their auspices since 1976-77. Of the special meeting, Dexter noted: "There must be better ways of spending £17,000." Costs were largely defrayed, as the 10,776 returned ballots included a donation of £1.50 towards the room hire, though his point remained. The motion was defeated, but he resigned later that year. "He stood there with a very English, if slightly batty, heroism as shot and shell flew about him," wrote Matthew Engel of his final days.
Where the dreamy Dexter enjoyed flights of fancy, Ray Illingworth was the canny Yorkshireman. Asked by The Cricketer around the time of his appointment to name the current players he admired, he replied: "None." Nothing during his reign suggested a change of heart, yet the game had evolved since he led England to the 1970-71 Ashes. Disagreements with captain Mike Atherton became a trans-Pennine soap opera, echoing the relationship between Hawke and MacLaren 90 years earlier. Where Atherton sought a long-term strategy based around youth, Illingworth chopped, changed, and said "no". Atherton wrote: "It was clear to me from the start that, whatever vision I had, and whatever plans I made, would be cast aside."
When he absorbed the role of cricket manager, Illingworth became the nearest thing before Silverwood to a supremo. The problem was that fellow selectors Fred Titmus and Brian Bolus were of a similar, detached generation. "Why," asked Botham, "are people too old, at 37, to play Test cricket, but too young to select the team until they are collecting their pension?" Botham tried to change that, one of nine men standing for two places in 1996. Romeo and Juliet had less rancour. Titmus pulled out, describing the election as "a rat race", while Botham claimed he had been victim of a dirty tricks campaign.
David Graveney and Graham Gooch emerged as relatively youthful winners. But, from then on, selectors would be appointed, rather than voted in and out. Graveney proved approachable and conciliatory when he replaced Illingworth as chair. He was happy - and shrewd - enough to allow Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher to call the shots, and the early years of the millennium embraced continuity and consistency, helped by central contracts. In 2005, England used only 12 players to reclaim the Ashes, including Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan, blooded a few years earlier despite limited county returns. Graveney's 11-year stint was largely successful, until a 5-0 defeat by Australia in 2006-07 prompted a review by Ken Schofield, previously a long-standing executive director of golf's European Tour. On his recommendation, the full-time job of national selector was born.
For Geoff Miller, then James Whitaker and finally Smith, the growing influence of white-ball cricket was problematic. As the IPL became king, England's attitude to the one-day game remained stubbornly analogue, until the dreadful 2015 World Cup campaign persuaded them to go digital. No longer was it a given that Test players could adapt to the shorter formats. But could the old belief work in reverse? Evidence suggested not, as bashers such as Jason Roy and Alex Hales were exposed in Tests.
Balancing the formats, while keeping the different captains happy, became a game within a game. Breaking team news is strong currency for the media. Alan Smith, as head of the old Test and County Cricket Board, was known to get on his hands and knees to sweep meeting rooms for bugs. Paranoia, you might think, but journalists covering a county game at Trent Bridge in 2009 discovered that Jonathan Trott would make his debut in the Ashes decider. After the selectors had met in a nearby room, one threw a torn sheet bearing the squad names into a waste paper basket - an easy jigsaw for the hacks to reassemble.
It ended well: Trott scored 119, and England regained the Ashes. And yet - as always - the player received more plaudits than the men who gave him his chance. "Selectors," Bedser wrote, "are the anvil for the hammer of every critic… there are occasions when [they] are human enough to pause for self-congratulation when they get it right - even if no one else notices." Maybe Pardon was only half-right: the lunacy is not in the selectors' choices, but their decision to put their heads on the block to make them.
Richard Hobson is a freelance cricket writer. He covered the game for more than 20 years at The Times, and now gives guided tours of Oxford.