It is not often that the England and Wales Cricket Board sets an example to the entire free world, but it might be said to have happened this week.
Just when the entire planet is transfixed by the chaotic transition in Washington, up pops the ECB to announce that one pleasant, well-brought-up young man from a not-quite-front-rank public school will become England captain, replacing another slightly less young man fitting the same description.
Joe Root was presented to the nation at Headingley, his notional home ground, although – in the nature of the modern game – he has only played four first-class county matches there in four years. And Root proceeded to say all the right things about his predecessor, Alastair Cook, and the job and the game and “the guys”.
The PR team had stretched things out over several days, even trying to create an impression there was some doubt as to who would be appointed. They probably regarded the operation as a great success. Even so, Root’s press conference did not make the BBC’s main news bulletin. The latest entertainment from the White House certainly did.
It is difficult to give advice to an organisation who, in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 Ashes ratings triumph, removed their sport from mainstream television to stop the public from watching it. They have succeeded in that all right. There is little chance of the England team ever getting another open-top bus tour, or even being recognised on a bus if the Ferrari breaks down and they have to catch one.
But if anyone in the game’s ruling body does want to get the public involved again, I have a suggestion. Forget the smooth transitions. Forget the well-rehearsed, well-mannered acceptance speeches. English cricket is a soap opera or it is nothing. Goodies! Baddies! Disasters! And a few triumphs if possible, though heaven knows we have managed without them in the past. So let’s change the script.
For a start team selection has been far too consistent and competent for some years now. Where’s the fun in that? I am not being facetious. Although cricket is a team game, the individual is at the heart of its appeal, not the result. Years ago there was regular outrage in Nottinghamshire whenever the local hero Derek Randall was replaced by Mike Gatting of Middlesex (it happened a lot). Remember the passions created in Yorkshire by Geoff Boycott?
But local heroes have been abolished. It is by no means clear that if or when the new franchised Twenty20 competition gets going that Root would be selected by the Leeds Loose Cannons rather than the Manchester Mercenaries or the Oval Oddbods. Or indeed playing at all, because he will be too busy captaining England. What’s the point of such an event without the leading cricketer in the country?
And the England captaincy itself has become a problem. Root is far less recognisable to the public than Len Hutton was when he became England’s first professional captain nearly 65 years ago when few people even had a TV. Hutton’s profile was somewhat lower than the monarch (same one as now) and the prime minister (one Winston Churchill), but considerably above the England football manager, a recently-created post then occupied by Walter Winterbottom, who did not even have full control over selection.
The England captain had real power though, especially when far from home. James Lillywhite, in Melbourne 140 years ago the first of them, was also the entrepreneur who set up the tour. And the pattern continued even after the MCC took over, especially when teams were a long way from the beady eye of the Lord’s establishment.
In 1932-33 Douglas Jardine unilaterally declared war on Australia, and just rode roughshod over the manager, Pelham Warner. In 1970-71 Ray Illingworth faced down and then simply ignored his manager, David Clark, on the way to winning the Ashes. I interviewed Freddie Brown, captain of the 1950-51 tour, just before he died; even in old age he was a man you would not mess with.
Since then the captaincy’s power has declined, largely due to the rise of the manager/coach, though there are countless other fingers in the pie including the director of England cricket, Andrew Strauss. As when he was a player, Strauss appears to do everything very efficiently even though no one seems to know what he actually does.
Quite literally, the captain’s visibility has declined, due to spending so much time in a helmet. And the position is now confused by there being two or sometimes three men entitled to call themselves England captains.
Root can expect to have the responsibility of explaining away defeats – successive coaches have been remarkably skilful at being otherwise engaged at such moments. However, the players have been so overtrained by the PR department they use similar techniques to those employed by business executives in complex negotiations with foreign counterparts who have limited English. No idioms, no jokes, no ad libs. And also nothing that could be twisted by a tabloid headline-writer.
Since his retirement, it has become clear that Michael Vaughan is articulate, intelligent and amusing. As captain, almost all his public utterances began with the word “obviously”. And they were indeed statements of the bleeding obvious.
What the captain does have now is tenure. When Hutton was given the job, he was given just a single Test match, though in the event he lasted three years. And captains would habitually be appointed or extended by increments, a series at most. Root, however, will lead the team to Australia next winter barring injury or a quite spectacular indiscretion. Even before Cook resigned, the subject was not really part of the national conversation.
Where are the great captaincy shemozzles of yesteryear? In the 1960s there could almost be fights in the playground between partisans of the tough northerners, first Brian Close and then Illingworth, and the constant alternative from the allegedly soft south, Colin Cowdrey. The distinction between the amateurs (otherwise known as the Gentlemen, who were in many cases officers and/or varsity men as well) and the pros (aka players) was officially abolished in 1962. It has never quite gone away, though.
Even after Hutton broke the amateur monopoly, one selector, RWV Robins (“Snobby Robby”) unsuccessfully plotted to replace him with the Rev David Shepherd, later the Bishop of Liverpool. Illingworth, a great success as captain, got the job in 1969 only because Cowdrey was injured, and even then had to squeeze out Roger Prideaux, a fringe playerwho was not guaranteed a place in the team, and whose main claim to the job was a Cambridge blue.
Good-chappery for its own sake was only killed off in 1988, the year England had four captains (five, including an afternoon of Derek Pringle) in nine weeks. For the Headingley Test against the then-mighty West Indies, the chairman of selectors, Peter May, plucked from county cricket Colin Cowdrey’s son Chris, who had the inestimable advantage of being his godson. The manager, Micky Stewart, quickly saw him off.
Rationalists argued that the whole business was absurd, that England should emulate the Aussies and put the best player in charge. In a sense that is what now happens. There are problems with that too. The most revered of all modern England captains, Mike Brearley, was barely worth a place on playing merit. And four times in my own memory, the best player was appointed even when there was, shall we say, a suitability question: Boycott, Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen.
It has always ended badly: in 1978 after a Pakistan/New Zealand tour on which Boycott took over after Brearley was injured, grown men returned with glazed expressions as though they had been in the trenches. They had seen things of which they could not speak.
England did not do well under any of these four and, if any England captain since Jardine was capable of igniting a global conflagration, it was definitely Pietersen. But by golly he got people talking about cricket again.
Which, on Thursday night, gave me a thought. I do not suggest bringing back Pietersen as captain: far too much baggage. But maybe the ECB can learn more from Donald Trump than the other way round. He continually assures us he is smart enough to learn anything. If the presidency-gig fails to work out, couldn’t the ECB at least hire him to take over the press conferences?
Ruling the free world does normally require some kind of attention to outcomes. For a national sports team in a declining game, the most important thing is simply getting attention. Maybe KP and DT’s strange mutual friend, Piers Morgan, can act as the fixer.
This article was sourced from http://esmaltenews.com