A comparison of the Fletcher and Flower eras
In the aftermath of Kevin Pietersen's startling autobiography, an ideological opposition has emerged between the Fletcher-Hussain-Vaughan and Flower-Strauss-Cook eras in English cricket.
Michael Vaughan wanted Pietersen to be appointed Cook's vice-captain in Australia. Pietersen writes warmly about Duncan Fletcher's approach to the job. Flower and Pietersen did not see eye to eye. Some of Pietersen's former team-mates under Flower have accused him of tarnishing an otherwise golden era in English cricket, one in which they became the No. 1-ranked Test team in the world. It is worth comparing the Fletcher and Flower eras of English cricket, especially since England's success under Flower is one of the central points made by those unsympathetic to Pietersen.
There is remarkable symmetry in the tenures of each coach. Each tenure included a historic away series win. Fletcher's team won in the West Indies after 35 years, while Flower's team won in India after 28. England won the Ashes under each coach, three times under Flower against Australian teams in transition after their all-time greats had retired, once under Fletcher against an all-time great Australian side. Both coaches ended their Test tenure after 5-0 defeats in Australia.
Both took over when England were at a low point. Fletcher more so than Flower. Fletcher was the first coach in the central contracts era. This gave him greater power than his predecessors enjoyed. Flower inherited a core group of players from Fletcher, including a settled opening pair, Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss, brilliant attacking batsmen in Pietersen and Ian Bell, and a much-improved James Anderson. He had to find a replacement for Vaughan and Paul Collingwood. England found Jonathan Trott during the 2009 Ashes. Where Fletcher had Andrew Flintoff, Flower had Graeme Swann. Both coaches, it is fair to say, had high-quality personnel.
After beating West Indies 3-1 in England in 2000, despite stellar bowling by Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh (51 wickets between them), Fletcher's team produced impressive series wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan they withstood Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed and a young Danish Kaneria, and won on the last day of the series in near darkness. Ashley Giles led the way with the ball, with 17 wickets at 24 in the three Tests. In Sri Lanka they won 2-1 and kept Muttiah Muralitharan to a modest 14 wickets at 30 in three Tests. Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick led the way with the ball against a classy Sri Lankan line-up featuring Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and a young Kumar Sangakkara, in addition to the marauding Sanath Jayasuriya.
To understand the magnitude of this win in Sri Lanka, consider that Sri Lanka had lost only four bilateral Test series out of 30 at home from their World Cup win in 1996 to Muralitharan's retirement in 2010. The only other teams to beat them were Pakistan with Wasim, Waqar and Saqlain in 2000, Australia with Shane Warne, Michael Kasprowicz and Jason Gillespie in 2004, and Pakistan again in 2006, thanks to Mohammad Asif, who took 11 for 71 in Kandy.
More impressive away results followed. England lost 1-0 in India to the spin of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who took 32 wickets between them in 2001-02. England would probably have won in Bangalore but for rain. England beat South Africa in South Africa in 2004-05. The 2001 Australians hammered England 4-1. This was Fletcher's only series defeat at home. The two Ashes defeats were the only black marks in an otherwise stellar early tenure for Fletcher's team. The year 2004 was also England's most successful to date in Test cricket.
Australia remained a problem, but in 2005, this changed. However, after the 2005 Ashes, England fell away, thanks in part to injuries. They lost in Pakistan and split a series in India after winning in Mumbai. They split a home series against Sri Lanka after they lost at Trent Bridge. Following this, they beat Pakistan 3-0 (including an infamous Oval Test which Pakistan forfeited). That winter, they toured Australia and were dismantled by a strong team desperate for revenge.
Flower's team produced a slightly better overall win-loss record. But they seemed to fall short every time they faced a quality opponent. With three possible exceptions. The 2009 and 2010-11 Ashes, and the 2012-13 tour to India. Those Australian and Indian teams were all either ageing or in transition and had lost many world-class players but they were still good teams. Many view England's win in India to be their finest achievement, but perhaps their 3-1 Ashes win in Australia ought to rank higher.
Unlike Fletcher's team, Flower's team always came up short against the best team of their day. They got hammered 2-0 by South Africa in 2012, and barely stayed with the South Africans in 2009-10, despite Dale Steyn missing a Test due to injury. It would have been 3-0 in 2012 but for Kevin Pietersen's breathtaking 149 at Headingley. Fletcher's team found a way to beat Muralitharan and Jayasuriya. Flower's team was demolished by Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman. The Australian team that beat England 5-0 in 2013-14 had a couple of superb new-ball bowlers whose achievement was of historic proportions, but Michael Clarke apart, their batting was hardly comparable to that of Steve Waugh's team.
Pietersen's claims, the backing they have received from numerous opponents, some team-mates, and the relatively feeble evidence offered by those seeking to refute these points, and most importantly his stature as a batsman of the highest quality, make it unlikely that Flower's work as head coach will ever escape controversy (a bit like Greg Chappell's tenure in India). However, his record suggests a couple of things that are difficult to dispute.
First, it would have been far worse without Pietersen's match-turning batting. Second, Flower's teams were unable to compete against top-quality opponents in the way Fletcher's teams were.
England's overall record under Fletcher does look worse than that under Flower. Keep in mind, though, that 14 out of the 30 defeats under Fletcher came against arguably the greatest Test team in history and against the most successful bowling pair in Test history. After all, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne won 71 of the 104 Tests they played together over 14 years, and lost only three series out of 37. Even Fletcher's team didn't beat that pair.
Fletcher rebuilt England's Test team after the struggles of the 1990s. Under him, England were dominant at home and competitive in several difficult overseas assignments. It was a golden era for England. In comparison, under Flower, England have been at best gold-plated, notwithstanding a No. 1 ranking.