The end of the road
So long, then, Duncan. As Simon Barnes recently wrote in The Times, all coaching careers - like those of politicians - must end in failure. For athletes, whose greatest asset is youth, the get-out is simpler, although often no less flawed in the timing. Either you've still got it or you ain't. Coaching doesn't work like that. Age need not weary the best of the breed, so long as the mind remains open and active. Every victory is seen as a stepping stone towards yet greater things; every defeat is digested in the knowledge that what comes around goes around, and better times must surely be around the corner. Until the day comes, of course, when round that corner lies a dead end.
For Fletcher, and for England, that dead end was reached some 18 months ago, but of course, he wasn't to know that at the time. For as long as they lasted, the good times he provided were more than just good - they were the greatest times that English cricket had known for generations, and they had been masterminded by a man whose first glimpse of his role, six long years earlier, had been that 2 for 4 scoreline at the Wanderers. England regained the Ashes and the jubilation of a nation rang through the squad's ears, but hindsight has it spot on, as ever. He should have gone there and then, with gratitude, glory and a brand-new British passport to see him on his way. But how was he to know that moment was not a new beginning, but in fact the culmination of his life's work?
Ever since that day, there has been a steady shipping of hope, faith and trust in Fletcher and his methods, although it is axiomatic that those methods have not changed in his time in charge. He's as inscrutable now as he has been ever since he arrived at the ECB via Glamorgan, while the facets of his character that are now portrayed as his greatest weaknesses - his cageyness with the media, his suspicion of county cricket, and his fierce (and flawed) loyalty to his trusted inner circle - were once his greatest strengths. People have carped about his methods since his first day in the job, but while he was winning six straight Test series in a row, up to and including the 2005 Ashes, his detractors had no leg to stand on.
|His arrival coincided with the beginnings of the ECB's central contract system, which for the five years it took to win the Ashes, was the best thing that had ever happened to English cricket. He was aided, as well, by a firebrand captain in Nasser Hussain with whom he instantly gelled|
He was also aided by the circumstances of his inheritance. England were at absolute rock-bottom in 1999. Beaten at home by New Zealand and booed off the field at The Oval (for Kennington then, read Kensington now), Fletcher had no place to take the side but up. He used his early summers wisely, hand-picking men such as Marcus Trescothick - whom he had seen slam an incredible 167 for Somerset at Colwyn Bay - and Michael Vaughan, who had been underachieving at Yorkshire but whose innate talent soon burst into full view. There were errors and aberrations in that time as well - were Usman Afzaal and Ian Ward really the men to defy Steve Waugh's Australians in 2001, for instance? - but when you're on the upward slope, the benefit of the doubt is so much more freely given.
Fletcher's good fortune indisputably ran out after the 2005 Ashes. Injury stalked his team - how cruel is it that Simon Jones and Vaughan, to name just two of the key protagonists, have not featured in Test cricket since that year? But as the team that he had nurtured fell apart physically and mentally, Fletcher was unable to respond in the manner of Kipling's luckless gambler. After losing all his winnings he was unable to start again at his beginnings, and he couldn't help but breathe several words about his loss.
And yet, it could have been so different. England so nearly managed to usher in a new dawn. New heroes emerged - Alastair Cook and Monty Panesar principal among them - and after a floundering start, the team reached some sort of fruition in the home series against Pakistan last summer. But at the precise moment that the whole world was watching, at Brisbane in November, Fletcher's greatest asset - his unfailing loyalty - became his greatest weakness.
Where was Cook in this World Cup squad? Where was Panesar when the team most needed his joie de vivre in the Ashes? Where is the strike bowler who can replace the sated Steve Harmison? Sadly, for all the fleeting glory he provided, Fletcher's legacy is a broken team and a failed system, in which the cream of England's emerging talent spends too much time bowling at a single stump in the middle of a practice square or hitting the ball sweetly in the nets, and not enough time learning to deal with success and failure on the county circuit - that unloved adjunct of the game from which Fletcher cherry-picked his faithful few way back in 1999.
Whoever Fletcher's successor turns out to be, he is set to be handed over a set-up every bit as rusty and careworn as the one that Fletcher himself inherited all those years ago. It is whether England can attain similar heights in a similar timeframe that may yet determine how history comes to judge the days of Duncan.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo