Monday, February 12, 2007

The Godfather Farce

London Mayor Ken Livingstone once stood up at a black tie dinner at the Institute of Actuaries in the City and said that ''Actuaries are a bit like Lesbians (Cue sharp intake of breath) - because you always wonder quite what they actually do!'' (Cue puzzled looks all round and whispers of 'what's a lesbian?')

To us lesser mortals among the great unwashed. the role of England Test selector has often been surrounded by a similar mystique.

There are a multitude of reasons for selecting someone for the England team. - Obviously class, form and ability help, but beyond that are are issues like 'horses for courses' (e.g. picking typical 'English'seamers at Headingley like Watkin and Mallender) , or being a good player of a particular style of bowling (David Smith for the West Indies for example, or Roger Tolchard in India)

Fortunately the days of 'plays for Kent/Surrey/Middlesex rather than a northern county' seem to have past, along with 'Public School eduation and possession of a posh accent' - although some of us have scratched our head recently over the choices of Giles ('Non playing captain's best mate') and Nixon ('Sledging ability')

Of course, there's often been another side of the coin in terms of reasons not to pick a certain player. 'Being an outspoken Yorkshireman' cost Fred Trueman at least twenty test appearances during his career. Had he played them, he'd still be England's top wicket-taker. In the same vein, cricketers of the quality of Doug Padgett & Jimmy Binks played one game each for England whilst vastly inferior players enjoyed extended runs in the team for no better reason than their accent.

Nothing however, has ever plumbed the depths of selectorial ineptitude compared with what happened in 1988 when a whole new 'criteria' was added...

The visitors that year were the West Indies, probably just past their mid 80's pomp (the 1984 side were the best team to ever tour these shores) - but still boasting a bowling line up of Marshall, Patterson, Ambrose & Walsh and a batting order that went - Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Richardson, Hooper, followed by the vastly underrated Dujon & Logie. Six, possibly seven Hall of Famers there.

The England batting line-up wasn't too shabby - The 3Gs (Gooch, Gatting & Gower) together with Chris Broad and Alan Lamb made a fair nucleus - but on the bowling front the attack was decidedly 'pop-gun' after Graham Dilley with names like Jarvis, Newport and Pringle set to feature.

In the rain affected first test at Nottingham, England got away with a fairly credible draw- but the test has gone down in history for what allegedly happened in a hotel room after the game... the outcome of which was a 'holier than thou' campaign from our wonderful, morally pure, tabloid press - fresh from their success in the Botham affair, which culminated in the sacking of Mike Gatting.

So the captaincy baton was passed to John Embuery. That'll be the same John Embuery who went on one 'rebel tour' to apartheid South Africa in 1982, was banned, returned to the England team and then went on another 'rebel tour' in 1990 and was banned again, and then picked for England again. You can really only have slack-jawed admiration that sort of commitment to filthy lucre - words like 'venal' and 'whore' don't do it justice. It also gives a good insight into the Englsih authorities attitude towards South Africa. (See Peter Oborne's magnificent - 'The D'Oliveria affair' for more on that sordid subject)

Embuery presided over two stuffings - first at Lords, despite one of the all time legendary first morning spells of quick bowling by Graham Dilley, and then Manchester, where the batting fell apart in humiliating fashion. So it was out with Embuery and in with...

The Sunday before the Leeds Test I arrived at my club for that afternoon's game. I'd missed the traditional lunchtime announcement so walked into something of a 'heated debate' on entering the changing room.

- Heard the England side?

- No - who's in?

- They've picked Robin Smith.

- Wow - a good choice! Pass the smelling salts!

- And Tim Curtis.

- Hmmm bit of a county journeyman but probably deserves a chance with the runs he's been making.

- And they've made Cowdrey captain!!

- Cowdrey?! You're joking - that's ridiculous... (clutching at straws time) Well, I suppose he did ok against Lillee & Thompson in 1974/75. I know we're desparate, but, he must be in his fifties - though, having said that I suppose he always was a good player of pace bowling - you know, Hall, Griffith, Adcock, Heine. He might be able to do a decent job.....

- No, not Colin - it's his SON!!

So there you have it - the new criteria. 'Son of the best mate of the Chairman of Selectors'! Someone who hadn't played test cricket since 1984/85, and hadn't built up a particularly strong CV then - and was hardly setting the world on fire as captain of Kent.

Gradually, over the coming weeks, the stories started filtering out - Peter May apparently overriding the rest of the selectors who wanted Graham Gooch as skipper, rumours that he was doing it as a favour to Cowdrey Senior for some past business deal. In short, a total and utter establishment stitch up. One journalist described the noise of the selectors explanation as 'the sound of an escape of noxious gas from a rotting corpse.' It might have been Matthew Engel in The Guardian... let's face it, it wasn't EW Swanton in the Torygraph!

Funnily enough, I've met Chris Cowdrey a couple of times since 1988. He's got a well-honed line in louche self-deprecation that quite a few second-tier establishment figures have - and has made a nice living on the public speaking circuit with his view of the farce, based around the normal godson/godfather relationship - 'Thanks for the captaincy Uncle Peter, but the usual pen-and-pencil set would have been fine'...

England were rolled over again in the Headingley test, and Cowdrey developed a 'thigh strain' before The Oval, which mysteriously cleared up in time for him to play for Kent. Presumably even Peter May didn't think he push the envelope far enough to give 'young Christopher' another game at the helm.

Graham Gooch, who was the obvious choice to replace Gatting all along - the only England player to appear in all 5 tests, took over. I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the selection meeting when comprehensive educated, 'East London born' Gooch was chosen. You can only guess that they thought it was the 'East London' in South Africa.


Scott said...

Yes, the ins and outs of English selectors are bemusing, although Australian ones can also be baffling. However in Australia there's also a long tradition of personal fueds and animosities, rather then class or nepotism based issues as in England.

Tony.T said...

Great post, Mark.

Jeff Dujon is not under-rated by me. Whenever the Windies we 4 or 5 for bugger all, he'd come in and get a ton. Bastard.

Malcolm Marshall, too, is one of my all-time fave cricketers. He was stunning in the 1984 England tour.

harrowdrive said...

Coincidentally I have just re-read Gowers autobiography on the topic. He seemed to be of the opinion that Cowdrey would have been a pretty nifty captain given a good run. He also points out that Lamb had an injury at the same time and was encoraged to leave it to the morning of the Test before pulling out while the captain was encoraged to drop out immediately.