Home comforts help Whitaker in lead role

IT is a tribute to Yorkshire’s cricketing excellence and to his own discerning eye that James Whitaker, the national selector, is a regular visitor to Headingley cricket ground.

Yorkshire-born England selector James Whitaker.
Yorkshire-born England selector James Whitaker.

Whitaker watches plenty of Yorkshire games for the simple reason that Yorkshire produce plenty of England players.

Indeed, it would be easier to think of the Yorkshire players that Whitaker and his fellow selectors have not chosen, or at least cast their eyes over in recent times, such has been the strength of the White Rose production line.

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Joe Root, Gary Ballance, Jonny Bairstow, Tim Bresnan, Liam Plunkett … all have played Test cricket in the past 12 months, while Adam Lyth and Adil Rashid are knocking on the door with increasing intensity.

Throw in the other Yorkshire players who are part of the England Performance Programme and the various England age-group teams, and the strength of Yorkshire cricket is Popeye-esque.

Whitaker, in fact, might be as well to set up permanent base at Headingley, seeing as no other club can match Yorkshire’s contribution to the national cause, with young players springing up left, right and centre.

In reality, he must go wherever the need is greatest, and he keeps close watch on each of the 18 first-class counties, putting in countless miles in the summer months.

However, as someone born in Skipton and living in Harrogate, you sense that Whitaker is not overly unhappy about the fact that Headingley has been a regular port of call since he became a selector in 2008 and chief selector since January this year.

“It’s great to see Yorkshire doing so well because I get to see a lot of Yorkshire cricket,” he laughs.

“Joking aside, a lot of Yorkshire players have come through the England set-up recently and you suspect a few more will follow suit.

“Everything Yorkshire have achieved starts from the top – from the chairman, Colin Graves, and the chief exec, Mark Arthur, down to the coaching staff of Martyn Moxon, Jason Gillespie and Richard Dawson, along with captain Andrew Gale.

“There’s good leadership at all levels, and winning the County Championship this year could be the start of a period of sustained success.”

Whitaker, 52, spent his formative years in Yorkshire and was a pupil at Malsis Hall school, near Keighley, where his early cricketing influences were the former Yorkshire players Don Wilson, Tony Nicholson and Phil Sharpe, who coached at the school on an ad hoc basis.

At 13, he was sent to the prestigious Uppingham boarding school in Leicestershire, where his cricketing skill blossomed under the guidance of former Leicestershire batsman Maurice Hallam, who helped him work his way up through that county’s junior ranks and eventually into the Leicestershire first team, where he shone as a talented right-hand batsman.

Although it would be wrong to say that Whitaker – who played one Test on the 1986-87 tour of Australia, when Ian Botham was ruled out through injury at Adelaide – slipped through the Yorkshire net, it would be correct to contend that he has always had great affection for his native county. As much as he enjoyed his time with Leicestershire, whom he captained to two Championship titles in the 1990s, I ask whether part of him regrets never having played for Yorkshire?

“Good question,” he says with a smile.

The amiable Whitaker ponders for a moment before continuing: “I wouldn’t say regret, because regret sounds like I’ve got some sort of bone of contention or anxiety, which I haven’t.

“I spent a considerable part of my growing-up period away from Yorkshire, from ages 13-18, and you do sever ties a bit while still keeping an eye on what’s going on.

“When I was 17, 18, 19, I wasn’t pining for Yorkshire because I had my own career to follow, and I knew I had to make a good go of it for Leicester and do well for them.”

Whitaker certainly succeeded in his aim.

A total of 17,198 first-class runs at a shade under 40 is testimony to his talent, and he might have played more times for England had they not possessed such an array of fine middle-order players.

“I scored a hundred at the start of the 1986-87 Ashes tour against South Australia,” he recalls, “But I was a middle-order player at a time when England had the likes of Gatting, Gower, Lamb and Botham.

“There were a number of us on the fringe, if you like, who had the odd go – maybe one Test or two.

“Maynard, Morris, Fairbrother, Bailey – we were all pretty much in the same boat.

“But I was incredibly proud to have represented England.”

Whitaker, who chose cricket over the family business, a chocolate manufacturing concern in Skipton that dates back to 1889 and is now run by his elder brother, William, might have not played for Yorkshire but he certainly savoured his battles against them.

In fact, he had a better average against Yorkshire (63) than against any other first-class county, achieving the outstanding record of 1,134 first-class runs in 14 appearances against the White Rose with five hundreds and three fifties, including a career-best 218 at Bradford in 1996.

“I always enjoyed playing against Yorkshire and it seemed to bring out the best in my batting,” he says.

“There was something in my roots, my DNA, that made me always like the challenge of facing Yorkshire, and you always knew that everyone you were playing against was also brought up in an authentic cricket way.

“The 218 at Bradford is a special memory; we got 600-odd in the first innings and I remember getting heckled by the Yorkshire crowd because we were killing the game, apparently.

“Anyway, we bowled Yorkshire out twice and won the match.”

An attacking batsman who adapted well to match situations, Whitaker also played two one-day internationals.

He was chosen for the Sharjah Cup games against India and Pakistan in 1987 and, in the second of those fixtures, led England to victory with an unbeaten 44 against a bowling attack that included Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Qadir.

After being forced to retire with a leg injury in 1999, Whitaker had a spell as general manager of Leicestershire before becoming the county’s director of cricket.

His 22-year association with the club ended in 2005, but three years later he was back in the guise of England selector.

“I’d had two or three years as a coach at Leicester and then I took some time out of the game,” he recalls.

“My wife, Katherine, and I started a family and we moved back to Yorkshire, and the chance came to join the selection panel.

“I’m very happy now; I’ve got three great kids – Oliver, Thomas and Sophia, and my daughter is starting nursery.

“The two boys play cricket – Thomas, particularly, desperately wants to play for Yorkshire – and both of them are very sporty.”

Whitaker continues: “It’s kind of like a wheel that’s come full circle for me – spending 20-odd years away from Yorkshire in terms of developing a career in cricket and then moving back to the county.

“Since I took over as national selector at the start of the year, we’ve been slowly trying to get a new team evolved and I think we’ve made some very good progress.

“Full credit to the guys that have come into the team – the new caps like Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance, for instance – and I think there’s a good nucleus of players now in and around the England side, along with good staff, management and coaches.

“I just love doing what I do – it’s very rewarding when it goes well and slightly frustrating when it doesn’t, but it’s a tremendous privilege all the same.”