April 28, 2011

Fletcher's second coming his biggest test

The challenge of preserving India's supremacy is greater for their new coach than when he was in charge of reviving England's fortunes

When Duncan Fletcher took charge of England's fortunes at the end of 1999, their Test team was at the bottom of the rankings after a humiliating home series loss to New Zealand, while the one-day side had not even contemplated its latest attempt at regeneration, after crashing out of that year's World Cup at the first available hurdle.

As a consequence, Fletcher's slate was clean, and the rest quickly became history. From a nadir that had been two decades in the making, he picked up the pieces of a scarred and weary team, and identified - firstly in conjunction with his furiously determined skipper, Nasser Hussain, and later with Michael Vaughan - the players capable of restoring England to a status befitting the country's history and reputation.

Twelve years down the line, the task that awaits Fletcher in his second coming as a national coach could not be further removed from such humble beginnings. His new Indian charges are the World Cup holders and the No. 1-ranked Test team, while Fletcher himself has acquired the sort of profile that he would never have sought at the start of his coaching career.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine that anyone at the BCCI will have mistaken him for Andy Flower, Stephen Fleming, or anyone else on the board's wish list, in the way that Simon Pack, the ECB's then-team director, mistook Fletcher for Dav Whatmore during his first round of interviews in June 1999. In the intervening years, he has become one of the most recognisable figures in the game - the jowly, inscrutable seer whose talent for dividing opinions is second only to his talent for dissecting batting techniques.

It is that latter ability that has attracted the attentions of his new paymasters, for Fletcher joins the Indian set-up at a fascinating, though potentially hazardous, juncture. As he would no doubt testify from his experiences with England post-2005, the attainment of a lifelong goal can have a devastating impact on the drive and cohesion of a sporting unit. After landing the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, the challenge for India is to defend their dual status with a dynastic zeal.

By the end of Fletcher's two-year tenure, however, India may well find that many of the old guard have moved onto a life beyond the boundary. In Test cricket, it is hard to envisage the likes of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman extending their careers further than the tours of England in July and Australia in December, while Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag are nearer to the end than the beginning of their playing days as well. The onus, therefore, is on regeneration, and where batting techniques are concerned, few coaches are better qualified than Fletcher to fine-tune the Kohlis and Rainas who make up the coming generation.

That is not mere speculation either, for the number of world-class cricketers who swear by Fletcher's advice is truly staggering. Jacques Kallis, his protégé from Western Province, is arguably the greatest batsman to have benefited from his wisdom, but it was Kallis's former South Africa team-mate Gary Kirsten, the outgoing India coach, who was the kingmaker in this latest appointment, having vouched for his credentials.

Within the England camp, there is scarcely a senior batsman from the past decade who has not learnt something significant from the days of working alongside Fletcher. Twelve months ago, a full three years after his resignation, Fletcher was sought out by Kevin Pietersen in a bid to rid him of his debilitating shortcomings against left-arm spin, while Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss all vouch for the calm manner in which he is able to convert his natural attention to detail into critical, and sometimes career-changing, nuggets of insight.

The money on offer will have been a significant factor in his decision, but not half as significant, one imagines, as his desire for revenge

And yet, so much of this went unappreciated throughout Fletcher's often fractious England tenure, ironically because his single biggest failing was one of communication - not within the squad, for his man-management was by all accounts superb (at least among those who bought into his approach), but through (and to) the media. The advent of central contracts aided and abetted the creation of what became known as the England "bubble", and Fletcher simply did not see any reason to prick the surface tension, and serve up his thoughts to anyone beyond the inner sanctum.

That obstinate attitude made for some memorable battles of wills with the British press in the course of his seven-year tenure. To his lasting credit, Fletcher invariably fronted up when his team had suffered one of their intermittent stinkers in the field, although those dreaded "Duncan Days" had become a self-parody long before his time in the job was up, with every new transcript an exercise in forensics. One of the principal differences between Fletcher and his fellow Zimbabwean successor, Andy Flower, is Flower's willingness - determination, even - to answer a straight question with a straight answer. In PR terms, that tiny bit of give and take is of unquantifiable significance.

If Fletcher thought the English media was bad - and to judge by his compelling but caustic autobiography, Behind the Shades, he most certainly did - he will have a treat in store when he faces up to the massed and maverick ranks of their Indian counterparts. However, his former Achilles heel could well prove to be his saving grace in his new role, for there is one factor that all successful India coaches have had in common. A desire to vacate the limelight has been the key to their longevity.

It was John Wright who set the standard at the turn of the 21st century, with a self-effacingly low-key approach to the role that allowed Sourav Ganguly to run the public show, though it was something Greg Chappell attempted (unsuccessfully) to stymie. Kirsten, like Wright had done with Ganguly, invariably deferred to MS Dhoni, just as Fletcher always regarded Hussain and Vaughan as the chief executives of his England operations, while he bustled away in the background fulfilling the duties of managing director.

At the age of 62, Fletcher has given up a lucrative line in consultancy work to take on undoubtedly the toughest assignment of his career. The money on offer will have been a significant factor in his decision, but not half as significant, one imagines, as his desire for revenge. After all, the manner in which Fletcher's project unravelled in the winter of 2006-07, first with the 5-0 Ashes whitewash, and then with another abject World Cup performance, means that his England legacy will never be recalled with the credit that it deserved.

Up to and including the 2005 Ashes, England won six consecutive Test series, including their first away victories over South Africa and West Indies for more than 30 years. Prior to that, Fletcher's men won back-to-back campaigns in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2000-01, and might even have salvaged a drawn series in India the following winter, had rain not intervened in Bangalore.

At the time it was felt that English cricket had never had it so good, and for that reason, it has long bugged Fletcher that he was so quickly singled out as the scapegoat, especially given what he later revealed about the "booze cruise" culture of his players during the Ashes whitewash. What better way to secure the last laugh, therefore, than to beat his former employers in their own backyard, and cement the status of the world's No. 1 side. Who knows, there might even be an entertaining sequel to be written in the coming months.

It certainly looks as though this is an appointment that has been a long time in the making. Kirsten's influence, allied to the retention of the bowling coach, Eric Simons - also from Western Province - points to a set-up that has been carefully vetted by a careful man. And then, of course, there is the impressive Dhoni, a man who looks every bit the sort of cricketer with whom Fletcher could do business (what would he have given for a wicketkeeper-batsman of that calibre during his England days?)

Furthermore, the terms of his employment state that Fletcher is a coach, rather than a manager. Here, at last, is a chance to do what he has always done best - impart cricketing wisdom without worrying about extraneous issues. The worrying might instead be confined to the likes of Strauss, Pietersen and Ian Bell, three key England batsmen about whom the opposition chief tactician knows rather more than is comfortable.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo