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December 15, 2006
Buried deep in the jungle on the island of Utila, near Honduras, there exists a hulking great structure known as Duncan's Folly. Built in the 1970s and 1980s, it consists of seven self-contained buildings including a power generator with a 60-foot concrete shaft well. The ensemble was the brainchild of a visionary architect named Bradford Duncan, who wished to construct the finest and most exclusive hotel complex in the whole of the Caribbean Sea.
Duncan's larger-than-life persona radiated thoughout his entire community, and his business cards described his position as "Governing Overlord of Utila". Alas, none but he could see the goal towards which he was working, and as bankruptcy swamped his enterprise, there was no substance upon which to fall back on. No working drawings of his complex exist, for instance, for they were all inside his head.
Duncan's Folly is also the name of a cricket team that is currently being buried in the Australian outback. A similarly ambitious project, pioneered by an inscrutable seer named Duncan Fletcher, it had the stated aim of becoming the foremost cricketing power in the world by the year 2007. With two weeks to go until the calendar clicks round to that date, the weeds are already growing tall around the foundations.
The enterprise was founded on solid utilitarian principles - those which state that the moral worth of a cricketer is solely determined by his contribution to the batting, bowling and fielding - but this rigid orthodoxy allowed no leeway when the climate suddenly and drastically changed. Today, with a tropical storm already howling through the press following the success of a certain cause celebre, the last pillars of Duncan's Folly came crashing around his ears.
It was one shot that did it, a sumptuous on-drive from Monty Panesar, a man that Fletcher had labelled as an irredeemable bunny. Maybe it wasn't quite the shot that was heard all around the world, but it certainly bounced about in the England dressing-room. "I loved it, I wish I could play the game like that," said a drooling Kevin Pietersen afterwards. "It was better than I've played all series. Monty's definitely got hand-eye coordination, he sets up well, he plays a few extravagant shots, and he's a crowd pleaser."
Maybe, just maybe, Panesar's sudden emergence as a willow-wielder is a testament to the disciplines that Duncan has instilled in him during his exile from the side. But that's not how Fletcher's legions of detractors will see it, and nor does it explain a Test career that is becoming the very definition of indomitability. Like a No. 11 version of Ricky Ponting, the rule for Panesar is "get him early, or don't get him at all".
So far, he has made just three ducks in his 14-innings Test career. He fell second ball to Anil Kumble at Chandigarh, seventh ball to Lasith Malinga at Edgbaston, and first ball to Umar Gul at The Oval. Other than that, he has now finished unbeaten on no fewer than nine occasions, and his other two innings have been as revelatory as today's - a gutsy debut innings of 9 at Nagpur, when he and Paul Collingwood added 66 for the tenth wicket and Collingwood recorded his maiden Test century, and a slap-happy 26 at Trent Bridge that included a remarkable slog-sweep for six off Muttiah Muralitharan.
He can bat, he can bowl, and his performance in the field was so energetic that no-one could possibly accuse him of being a weak link. After all, no-one really believed England would have been better off without Pietersen in the last Ashes, even though he held onto precisely none of the five chances that came his way.
Whether England win, lose or draw this match is now immaterial. Recriminations are inevitable after the gross mismanagement of this Ashes campaign, and a proud man and his notable achievements are bound to be overlooked in the clamour. Like his Caribbean namesake, Fletcher also laid the foundations of a great enterprise on ground that, when he started out in 1999, was barely fit to graze goats.
But Duncan's Folly on this tour has been to ignore the genuine claims of a rising star of the game, until such time as his inclusion could only backfire on one party or the other. Happily, Panesar has demonstrated the sort of cool under pressure that is granted to few. Unhappily, his success now reflects abysmally on his coach - rightly or wrongly, given the constant line-toeing that Monty has given all tour. The project into which he has been belatedly invited is already an empty shell.
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