Speculation is moving so quickly that this post will probably be out of date before I even hit ‘publish’.
If we’re going to look at who will become the new, and inaugural, director of England cricket – and in effect succeed Paul Downton – we need to start with first principles.
Players win cricket matches. Not coaches, managers or executives. End of. Many of England’s recent problems stem directly from over-management, which has taken too much responsibility and autonomy away from the eleven men on the field. The only person who should specifically have extra authority is the captain.
No executive director can be a panacea for all ills, nor wave a magic wand. But they can easily make a dreadful mess, as Downton proved. So what should their brief be?
There are two distinct options. The first is what’s traditionally been the case – a hands-off role. If so, the director’s responsibilities are to appoint the coaches and selectors, play a part in choosing the captain, oversee the coaching system, plan for the future, and integrate young players, but generally keep out of the way. The job is best done – can only be done – unglamorously and unobtrusively.
Alternatively, the position is utterly hands-on, which means changing the whole set-up, so the director is also chair of selectors and not only makes the majority of the big coaching calls but becomes the motivator and cheerleader-in-chief. In turn this could only involve downsizing the Peter Moores role to purely technical responsibilities.
Either way, it has to be one thing or the other, without confusion or overlap, or chaos will ensue. Paul Downton was hired as a hands-off administrator, but his ego led him to blur the boundaries – interfering with selection meetings, sacking players – which further destabilised an already sclerotic framework.
If as expected the ECB appoint a high-profile ex-player to replace Downton, it can only work if they go the whole hog – the second option – and create a genuine supremo. You can’t have a glitzy England hero with a chest full of medals in charge of the setup without him inevitably overpowering everyone else.
If you were to write a list of organisations who specialise in logical decision making, the ECB might not be the very first name to spring to mind. But all the rumours point to a big-name appointment, so let’s be positive and assume Tom Harrison will give the new man the authority he’ll need for the plan to work. Otherwise, we’ll be better off with a professional sports administrator.
My heart says Michael Vaughan. He was a wonderful and mostly selfless England captain with an instinctive feel for man-management, and remains an astute judge of dressing-room dynamics. Vaughan would be the definitive breath of fresh air – an often staunch ECB critic who for the most part understands why things have gone so disastrously wrong during the last two years.
He will demand independence, and – probably – refuse to kowtow to ECB politics. He has plenty of other fish to fry, which means he needs the job less than they need him – and can be his own man.
Andrew Strauss ticks many of the same boxes, but seems like a retrograde step, and is too close to too many players still around the squad, True, Vaughan played with Cook, Bell, Broad, and Anderson – but less often and much less recently, and the bonds are weaker. If there’s one lesson above all to be learned from the last eighteen months, it’s the corrosive effect of cliques, prejudice and favouritism – even if only perceived.
Strauss is from The Right Sort Of Family. He is the establishment figure par excellence, but while his ECB cufflinks and nice clean fingernails shouldn’t be held against him…well, he just doesn’t feel quite right, somehow.
Nasser Hussain? He achieved an enormous amount as England captain, but was abrasive, headstrong, and emotional – unsuitable qualities for a managerial role whose subtleties demand a more relaxed and detached personality. Anyway, he already appears to have ruled himself out.
Alec Stewart is a plausible and attractive candidate. Unladen with lucrative media commitments, he’s the one name on the list who’d unambiguously want the job. Strangely ‘outside cricket’ for a man of such military-style orthodoxy – in one of cricket’s less studied scandals, he was sacked as England captain in 1999 for trying to get his players a better pay deal – he would bring a change of perspective and philosophy. Does he have, though, the natural clout and authority to reform and co-ordinate a complex organism?
The nightmare scenario is of course Andy Flower, but surely that’s a step too recherché even for the ECB. Flower’s time has passed, even in the eyes of his most faithful supporters. Tom Harrison would not have sacked Paul Downton purely to wind back the clock.
Perhaps I’m naive – in spite of everything – but just maybe the winds of change are finally beginning to rattle Old Father Time. With them – and symbolised by the ECB’s choice of team director – must come the recognition of the need for a paradigm shift: an end to the culture of jobs-for-the-boys.
Time and again, when an important role needs filling, the board simply ring up one of their old mates, probably after Giles Clarke bumped into them on the golf course. The ECB only employ people who inhabit their own spiritual biosphere. Smartly pressed blazer? Won’t frighten the horses? When can you start? No relevant experience or demonstrable competence, or out of touch with the modern game? Don’t worry, you can just muddle along.
It’s the equivalent of getting your friend who DJs weddings to headline Glastonbury. And it’s this mentality which landed us with Downton in the first place. He’d worked in a bank for twenty years – a job entirely irrelevant to managing cricketers – but was a Good Sort Of Chap.
Downton in turn hired Peter Moores, the only man in world cricket who’d already been fired from exactly the same position five years previously. Moores was appointed partly on the recommendation of the ECB’s Head of Elite Coach Development – that well-known giant of international cricket, Gordon Lord. No, me neither.
The chair of selectors is a vital role. You’d think the responsibility was best entrusted to a cricketer of extensive international experience, perhaps a former captain. The last three chairs have been David Graveney (0 England caps), Geoff Miller, (34 caps) and James Whitaker (1 cap).
Whitaker is the most egregious example of what happens when you hand out sinecures on the basis of obedience and affability, not solid credentials. He’s got virtually every important selection decision wrong, and can barely string a sentence together during interviews, even when he remembers to turn his phone off.
Whitaker must be put out of our misery. The Daily Telegraph expected him to be fired this morning. So far, no joy, but if the new team director does indeed take charge of selection, Whitaker’s role will be scrapped anyway. So here’s hoping.
Let’s return, however, to the man of the moment. Unsurprisingly, Downton’s downfall has been met with sympathy in some quarters of the press, who’ve portrayed him as the brave, unlucky fall-guy who became a victim of circumstances – and the scapegoat for World Cup failure.
Everything Downton did – or failed to do – was his own responsibility. No one made him dismiss Pietersen. There was no urgent crisis to resolve, no cause to take such drastic action at that specific moment, no Jeremy Clarkson-style punch-up.
No one made Downton appoint Peter Moores. No one coerced Downton into using Alastair Cook as a heatshield – retaining him as ODI captain until the last moment and then sacking him at the wrong one. Absolutely no one forced Downton to break confidentiality agreements. He and he alone bungled, dissembled and connived.
When first appointed, Downton arrived at his desk equipped only with a half-baked notion of ‘team’, a vague idea that English cricket should emulate New Zealand’s rugby All-Blacks, and the lazy prejudices of the golf-club bar-bore. Those prejudices played directly into the hands of Andy Flower, whose cooked-up tale of woe (itself a bizarre product of tantrums and espionage) confirmed the impression Downton had formed of Pietersen while flicking through the Daily Telegraph in his City office.
The rest is history, but the backlash caught Downton entirely by surprise. His response was to weave a pathetically transparent web of convoluted distortion and deceit. Beneath the ungrammatical waffling about disengagement and disinterest, the only ‘evidence’ he could lamely offer was an account of Pietersen looking slightly bored at fine leg in one test match.
To disgruntled supporters, Downton presented a case which was both insulting and ridiculous. This ensured that the Pietersen row – despite the ECB’s most fervent hopes – would never disperse.
To make matters worse, Downton also told a number of lies. These included his claim that he’d found no support for Pietersen among senior management, where in fact both Ashley Giles and David Saker had made public statements to the opposite effect during the very weeks in question.
Most of the press have attributed Downton’s dismissal to England’s failure in the World Cup. But plenty of England bosses have endured poor World Cups and survived. Surely, he was sacked as much for Pietersen as anything else. I hope – and strongly suspect – that new chief executive Tom Harrison, as an outsider, saw the entire affair in the way we did ourselves.
Did he conclude not only that Downton’s calumnies were irredeemable, but that English cricket could never ‘reconnect’ with its public until the wrongdoing of the Pietersen affair had been in some measure redressed?
Ultimately, Downton became not the fall-guy for a losing team but the scapegoat for his own grievous misconduct. The fact that the man who sacked Pietersen has now himself been sacked is as close to an admission that ‘we were wrong’ as we will ever get.