November 13, 2012

Where did the old Duncan Fletcher go?

India's coach seems a far cry from the combative professional who took England to the top

What's an innocent foreign coach to do in India? Where the game is run by an overweening board, teams are picked by parochial selectors, every player is a superstar who doesn't obey any instructions, and there's an out-of-control media that harangues the poor foreigner every waking moment.

That's the easiest - and perhaps most lazy and clichéd - line that can be taken in favour of India's current coach, Duncan Fletcher.

Particularly when England, the country he coached successfully from 1999 to 2007, have come touring. Fletcher's significance with the Indian team in his 18 months on the job is a bit of a cipher. That word, cipher, can be interpreted in one of two ways, either of which could fit Fletcher's impact on the team: cipher as in a secret code or cipher as in zero.

It could well be that the code is playing itself out in a dressing room full of earnest goodwill and jollity. To amateur, unprofessional eyes, these are unseen sophistications. Fletcher, after all, came to India on a very strong recommendation from the previous coach, Gary Kirsten, as the ideal man to handle India's difficult generational "transition".

Fletcher is considered a repository of great cricketing knowledge, an astute tactician who can spot players' strengths and flaws at a glance, and a man in possession of a wry sense of humour. It sounds perfect, but in the results column, the code is hard to decipher.

Under Fletcher, India's overseas record - their most palpable, visible improvement in the preceding decade - was suddenly upended into an 8-0 pasting in England and Australia. Eight defeats, not even one draw wrested out of the opposition.

Leave aside the rash of injuries, nefarious pitches, and what insurance companies call random acts of god, the least these numbers indicate is that the transition is not going well under the man supposed to be shepherding it.

Had 8-0 taken place ten years ago, either Sourav Ganguly or John Wright would have lost his job. Six years ago, pick between Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell. Sachin Tendulkar, whose captaincy is never lauded, led India in 13 away Tests (South Africa, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia) and returned with six defeats and seven draws. Not 8-0.

Yet there has, in India, been a swift institutional moving on from 8-0. A combination of circumstances is responsible: a selection committee that saw out its term by living off the World Cup victory, ten Tests at home this season, every alternative captaincy candidate struggling for form. Along with this (to borrow a word from Rahul Dravid, though he referred to it in a different context on ESPNcricinfo's Time Out) came a "cocoon" mindset. In this case, think head, sand and ostrich.

In May this year, at a working committee meeting, Anil Kumble, as KSCA president, made a civil inquiry about the questions to be put, post 8-0, to the Dhoni-Fletcher team. An equally civil reply followed, stating that the query would indeed be raised with Dhoni-Fletcher by the president, aka N Srinivasan.

It is not known what has transpired since Kumble's query, or whether ultimatums have been issued. From the outside, though, Dhoni and Fletcher look like the Teflon Twins. The din around Dhoni's leadership has been misdirected, coming in the wake of the recent World Twenty20. From the outside, never mind having to dodge bullets, Fletcher hasn't even sighted the artillery, because, according to one informed opinion, "his reputation has saved him".

Yes, Fletcher faces obstacles: his hands are tied, his powers are limited, and his authority is undermined. Yet he will have known this before he took the job. Kirsten would not have let his coaching mentor dive into the deep end without detailing these hardship taxes around what is not a bad salary: approximately US$250,000-per year, all-included, with five return trips home and back with family, a support staff of his choice, and a clause in his two-year contract that actually says he doesn't need to interact with the malodorous media unless asked by the BCCI.

Fletcher is therefore answerable only to those who pay him his wages. The problem is the results column that won't go away. Coaches may not score runs or take wickets but they are key components of progress, and India, the team, do not appear to be making any.

In an interview to ESPNcricinfo last year during India's tour of England, former England captain Nasser Hussain talked passionately about how Fletcher had changed the culture of English cricket and wondered how he would "take on players and make really important decisions that will really annoy a lot of people in India?" before saying, "He will view it as the right thing to do."

Hussain spoke of the two varying environments around Fletcher the coach. "The biggest difference is [that] in English cricket, he was the main man. If he said he was going to do something, we did it. [In] India, it is how much they will let him do things off his own back. That will be the decision they will have to make and he will have to make: whether he takes on people in India or not."

Eighteen months into a 24-month contract, Fletcher has annoyed no one and taken no one on. It is as if the Fletcher on the job in India is vastly removed from the Fletcher who worked with England, who was, in his old captain's words, a man who was "very stubborn, doesn't bow to the press, doesn't suffer fools gladly". In India, either age has melted down Fletcher's stubbornness or he has decided that some things and some people are worth suffering for two years.

Individual players speak of his knowledge and expertise - whether it was Virat Kohli to the Indian Express or Irfan Pathan marvelling at how his run-up had been sorted out on a recent tour of Sri Lanka. The opinion on Fletcher ranges from, "Well, he's there" to an appreciation of his "cool and calm demeanour" and his responses to players seeking cricketing tips.

Junior, fringe players, key components of transition, however, say he doesn't interact with them much, leading to a sense of overall "directionlessness". While it may not be all about making stirring speeches, in the dressing room there is much mumbling about Fletcher's shortage of "man management skills". An insider says, "You know Fletcher's ideal role in India? As a game-development in charge." Not coach.

This is again, startlingly different from England's Fletcher, who was involved, Hussain said, "in a lot of the behind the scenes. If anyone needed reprimanding and having a quiet word, Duncan used to do a lot of that. […] Fletcher plays the bad cop, I play the good cop, and then we swap around. But the captain-coach relationship is absolutely vital. You both must be singing from the same hymn sheet."

It is where Fletcher's dynamic with Dhoni is important. The common note on their hymn sheet before the England tour was to send out a request to the selectors picking the India A team for England's first warm-up match - no spinners in there, thanks.

Yes, Fletcher's hands are tied, his powers are limited, and his authority is undermined. Yet he would have known this before he took the job. Coaches may not score runs or take wickets but they are key components of progress, and India do not appear to be making any

Beyond that, their equations appear at best, amorphous. "It's a bit vague," says one player, "Dhoni gets along with Duncan, respects him and all that. But the lines are clear. Dhoni has a final say in the XI and controls tactics on the field, but otherwise, off the field, he's hands off." It becomes the coach's job to take a team from disaster to recovery.

Dhoni's detachment and calmness have long been celebrated. In the light of 8-0, though, this calmness appears to have become far too much of a distance from the internal workings of his own team and his coach. Fletcher for his part respects the team hierarchy. The players believe, however, that when needed, their coach will not play the free-speaking messenger between the team and the captain - not even in private.

The air around Dhoni and Fletcher contains far too much "calm". The dressing room that follows them is now static. Twelve months from now, no number of Test victories at home will change India's course on their next round of away tours, unless some hustle returns to the dressing room.

It could be that Fletcher finds himself in this predicament because of the new arm's-length mantra adopted by recent Indian coaches. On Time Out, Dravid says he prefers the opposite method, "Over the last three-four years we've seen that coaches have taken a slightly more detached, or slightly more backward role to our selections… I think a coach should be more involved in the selection process… You want to give people powers and you want to hold them accountable, especially when you have senior, knowledgeable people like Duncan."

The arm's-length business started with Kirsten, who successfully circumvented the Indian selection maze and the demands of its domestic cricket. He coached the teams he was given, and India got to the No. 1 Test ranking and won the World Cup. For Fletcher, managing transition in India would require getting his hands dirty and doing what he did with England - being involved in selection, taking people on, as Hussain said, annoying them.

It is said Fletcher had indicated to the BCCI that he preferred not to be involved in the pointy end of coaching - selections, domestic cricket. The new selection panel says quite openly, though, that it wants him in selection meetings and to go to first-class games. It is not in his contract, though.

There is talk within the board of "bold moves" should the series against England and Pakistan go badly. (Which, in all honesty, they are not expected to.) In theory, though, England, who made Fletcher's reputation as a coach, could undo it in India. Ultimately, says one official, Fletcher's fate, "is only in one man's hand. It is the president who will take the final call."

Either way, any call around the Teflon Twins is better taken now rather than six months later, when Fletcher's contract runs out, with seven months left for the tour to South Africa. But that will mean cracking the cocoon.

With additional inputs from Amol Karhadkar, Sidharth Monga and Abhishek Purohit

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo