The behind the scene battles

TED CORBETT

WHILE Michael Vaughan was making his fluent runs on the Trent Bridge pitch, greater battles were being fought behind the scenes.

I love going to Nottingham, the homeliest of all the venues. The people are friendly. Girls outnumber boys by six to one, a statistic a man can handle. The streets throb with life and even though its citizens litter the place with evidence of their party spirit each Friday night they rise early the next morning and, with proper civic pride, sweep the streets clean before ordinary folk are abroad.

Not even the good people of Nottingham can stop the rain so I had plenty of time to sniff behind the scenes for news of tomorrow.

Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has - as I suggested he might a few months ago - come to the end of his six-year term and decided that he will not contest the election next month.

He has always hinted that he would not stay in place if there were opponents and now that two have emerged he has come to the conclusion that he ought to spend more time with his mobile phone company Vodafone. He has been commissioned to find their new chief executive, a task made urgent by the impending retirement of Sir Christopher Gent, and the state of the firm's finances needs attention too.

M'Lord's departure has been prompted by county chairmen who had lost faith in his willingness to see their side of life. One after another said they could not support him and he stepped down before the electoral college - consisting of 18 club votes and one from MCC - gave him a push.

How shall we judge his term of office stretching back six years?

He is a formidable figure, lowering rather than assertive, but giving off an aura of power even when he is among friends. He adds to his stature by remaining silent when lesser men might shout their opinions and I hear that in argument he is ready to make no excuses but to leave.

"Call me Ian," was his message to us media types when he took charge but a pally chat always seemed unlikely. He invited me to send him ideas and I did. Twice. His replies left no doubt that I was wasting my time; even that he did not tolerate fools gladly. He clearly did not wish to follow my path forward and my ideas dried up.

One story tells all. When he was appointed a newspaper sent a photographer to show its readers what sort of man now directed cricket's fortunes. The photographer could not persuade him to relax. "Lighten up, M'Lord," he begged. "You will look as if you are furious if I take your picture at this moment."

"You should see me when I am angry," snapped the new chairman.

His grand gestures gave the game good publicity, the players receive more money and greater security under the contract system. He has also persuaded the government to delist cricket. (This means that it can be broadcast by satellite companies as well as terrestrial television.)

As a result of the bidding which followed, the ECB have piles of the folding stuff, a vast range of duties and a staff that needs pruning. Both the contestants for his job pledge there will be fewer bodies at Lord's in future.

MacLaurin had his own pruning plans. In particular he wanted to cut the number of committees who run the game and replace them with officials. When it became clear his time was up he asked for a one-year extension to put these plans in place. The constitution of the ECB prevented this ploy, seen in some quarters as a desperate attempt to stay in office.

His enemies - and men who made swinging changes make enemies easily - thought he spoke out of turn too often and particularly about the England team. They claimed he should have kept his opinions to himself.

They said that if his playing career reached its height with several appearances for Kent second team his judgement must be faulty. It's poor logic.

Jock Stein, manager of the hugely successful Celtic football team of the 1960s and 1970s and later of Scotland, was a fairly ordinary player. Laurie MacMenemy, assistant coach to England's footballers, never played in senior football. Jack Birkenshaw of Leicestershire, John Buchanan of Australia and John Inverarity of Western Australia turned into fine coaches even though their playing careers were ordinary.

So you don't have to play often at a high level to understand a game - the best golf coach David Leadbetter was no great shakes in tournaments - but his opponents said MacLaurin talked nonsense.

England's players saw him from a different perspective. No wonder. His first act was to insist that grown men should have separate rooms on tour, rather than sharing as Test players have done since the 19th century. No employee with sense dislikes a boss who raises his wage, offers more dignity and quite obviously enjoys his company.

Those enemies called him a fan; the players wanted him to stay around and of course England are a better side since his reign began.

His success or failure cannot be measured until his successor takes charge. Whoever he is, the new man will not have MacLaurin's connections in Parliament and the world of big business.

The two men who have entered the fray both have success written all over their CVs.

David Morgan of Glamorgan is reputed to be the cleverest man in county cricket and he has been MacLaurin's No. 2 for the last few years. If he wins the election he will undoubtedly carry out the reforms MacLaurin wanted. His critics say he is too quiet, that he has put no energy into his campaign and one in particular has claimed: "He wants to win the match without going in to bat." He has waited before telling his voters how he plans to reform ECB; he has waged a silent war but he is seen as a safe pair of hands, the right successor to the highly motivated businessman.

Michael Soper, the Surrey chairman, retired four years ago so that he could concentrate his energies on cricket, woke Surrey from a long slumber and, when MacLaurin said he might want to step down, put his own name forward.

He has been seriously ill with bone and prostate cancer since his retirement but treatment in America has offered him another four years of good life and he is still able to maintain a cheerful smile despite the knowledge that he may not see out two terms in office.

As I write, no clear favourite has emerged; but a new problem has arisen which will have to be solved either by MacLaurin, whose term of office does not end until December, or his successor.

Nasser Hussain will review his position after the World Cup; Duncan Fletcher's contract finishes a year from now. The pairing was born in heaven. Hussain the great publicist and Fletcher the outstanding coach are as complementary as biscuits and cheese.

What happens if Hussain decides to quit after the World Cup? The favourites for his job are Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. It is difficult to imagine them giving the interview Hussain gave to Michael Atherton which portrayed the emotional man as a thinker ready to admit his faults and declaring an intention to lead England for another year.

So if may be that England will plump for a coach with a more visible presence. Rodney Marsh, head of their Academy, is the role model they have in mind.

There are many other reasons why the debate on Fletcher's future should not come to a conclusion yet. A coach's natural lifespan is not more than five years, the ultimate test called the Ashes battle is about to begin, the World Cup is bound to throw up new challenges for both Hussain and Fletcher. There is no need to make a decision before the World Cup.

Unless England triumph in the mini World Cup in Sri Lanka next month or regain the Ashes or win the tri-series afterwards.

That might be a better time to give Fletcher a long extension to his lucrative contract. At 150,000 pounds sterling a year he is the highest paid coach in the world and his wages will rise considerably if he signs a new contract.

Fletcher will hope for a success by Morgan, a known admirer after Fletcher guided Glamorgan to the championship in 1997.

But as long as batsmen play with Vaughan's skill the petty bickerings of the board rooms mean precious little. Long may it be so.