April 15, 2009

Flower accepts the poisoned chalice

A dogged refusal to buckle has long been a characteristic of the man who has been appointed the the new England coach

There was a time, not so long ago, when the job of England coach was arguably the most attractive of its kind in the world game - an enviable salary coupled with a high-profile team, and the chance to compete in some of cricket's most fabled contests. Times they have a-changed of late, and it's not just the IPL that has shifted the stumps. England's casual descent from genuine contenders to infighting also-rans has helped to cheapen the cachet.

Andy Flower, the latest man to take on a job that is beginning to seem as thankless as the football version, still hadn't decided whether he wanted it at all when he set off for the Caribbean at the end of January. His reticence was unsurprising for, amid the internecine chaos that reigned in that extraordinary month, his name had featured alongside that of Peter Moores on Kevin Pietersen's list of intended dismissals, and for a few bleak days his position seemed untenable.

Three months later, Flower has completed a remarkable reversal of fortunes. His resilience has not exactly matched the bravery he showed when standing up to Robert Mugabe at the 2003 World Cup, but a dogged refusal to buckle has long been a trait of his character. Even Pietersen was reportedly won over by his thoughtful yet stern leadership in the Caribbean, and though, when asked about their relationship, Flower could offer nothing more effusive than "we get on pretty well", communication between the two has clearly improved now that Flower has escaped Moores' shadow and been allowed to become his own man.

Odgers Ray & Berndtson, the ECB-appointed headhunting firm, apparently sifted through 30 applicants before settling, conveniently, on the incumbent, but there might well have been palpitations at Lord's had they decided anyone else fitted the bill. With a coach and three captains already written off in the past six months, and a fourth awaiting appointment for the ICC World Twenty20, the last thing that England really needed was yet another change at the top.

"We've had enough instability already this winter, and it's been a tough time for all," said Hugh Morris, the managing director of England Cricket. "We're very, very pleased with the appointment of Andy. We see him as someone to take England forward, not just in the short term but in the longer term too."

The ease with which Flower and Andrew Strauss gelled in the Caribbean was undoubtedly the clincher, even before the deal was sealed with England's unlikely last-ditch triumph in the one-day series. Two years ago to the week, the ECB valued speed over consideration, and chose to unveil Moores barely 24 hours after Duncan Fletcher's resignation in Barbados. Unease ensued thereafter - Michael Vaughan had less than a month to gel with his new coach, and never really succeeded, while Pietersen lacked the diplomacy even to pretend. Unity at the top is a very healthy starting point for England's planned renaissance.

But nevertheless, Flower's appointment is still quite a gamble - the very fact that Pietersen was oblivious to his merits throughout his first 18 months in the England set-up suggests that Flower has not yet perfected his pitch as a coach. As his former team-mate Henry Olonga told Cricinfo on Tuesday, the best players don't necessarily make the best leaders, and as Flower himself admitted today, he initially found the transition from player to watcher frustrating.

Flower has been learning to communicate his desires from the sidelines, and according to Morris, his key attributes are "vision, drive and ambition", which are precisely the sort of buzzwords that you'd find scrawled all over your average graduate CV. For all his myriad achievements as a player, Flower's coaching career is entirely in its infancy. Where most applicants would have laid out their experience, he can offer only promise and endeavour, and better things to come.

"When Moores and Pietersen fell out in India before Christmas, the root of their breakdown was Moores' inability to offer any on-field insight to a clearly struggling captain. In the heat of battle, no amount of theory or management-speak can contain Virender Sehwag in full flow."

That is not to say he is not the right man for the job, however, for if anyone in the world game knows how to make something out of nothing it is Flower, who forged an international career of sufficient brilliance to turn his home nation of Zimbabwe (alas too briefly) into one of the game's overachieving outfits. He famously made it to No. 1 in the world batting rankings, and along the way he was a part of some memorable team heists - not least against England, whom he was instrumental in embarrassing on their Test tour in 1996-97, as well as in six of the first eight ODIs between the two countries.

As Flower himself insisted, international experience is not a pre-requisite for coaching success, as John Buchanan and Troy Cooley, to name but two examples, have proven in recent years. But there's no doubt that it helps, not least when dealing with the type of cocksure characters that reside in the England dressing room. When Moores and Pietersen fell out in India before Christmas, the root of their breakdown was Moores' inability to offer any on-field insight to a clearly struggling captain. In the heat of battle, no amount of theory or management-speak can contain Virender Sehwag in full flow.

During his playing days, Flower led from the front in everything that he did - as a batsman, as a wicketkeeper, as an example for others to follow. His initial emphasis in the Caribbean was on physical fitness, and if his demand for "an ethos of constant improvement" sounds alarmingly like the sort of empty soundbite his predecessor might have come out with, then at least you can ascertain from his own indomitable career that he will walk the walk every bit as much as he talks it.

We may never know exactly who else made it to the Odgers-approved shortlist, but you could hardly blame any coach with a reputation to protect for steering well clear of England at present. With their unedifying combination of under-achievement and over-expectation, any given tenure could have been as brief and self-harming as, say, Luis Felipe Scolari's at Chelsea. Flower, on the other hand, has the opportunity to forge a reputation where none existed before. It's exactly the same challenge he faced as a player, and who's to say he cannot succeed once again.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo