July 10, 2009

Fletcher's formula

The former England coach may be critical of the English domestic game's set-up, but that's not the same as being critical of its essence

Some stereotypes die hard. Back in 1997 Duncan Fletcher helped Glamorgan win their first championship for 28 years, yet the image that persisted during his subsequent seven-and-a-half-year stint as England coach was of a distant figure who placed country first and the counties somewhere in a different parish. Last week Fletcher arrived in England for a month-long consultancy spell with Hampshire, and although he is not exactly here to put the record straight, the charge still rankles.

"County cricket is a great tradition and I keep saying it," he says. "Yes, I definitely valued county cricket during my time as England coach. All I ever said was that was that they play too much cricket. The players need more time for preparation. It's as simple as that."

The distinction seems pretty clear, but Fletcher believes his words were deliberately twisted by ex-players with an agenda, then seized upon by the media. Criticism of the domestic game's set-up, he argues, is not the same as criticism of its essence. In fact, he is impressed with what he has found at Hampshire. But for those wondering whether county cricket is capable of changing itself from within, listen to Fletcher's take on the club's schedule over the next fortnight.

"Hampshire have reached the final of the Friends Provident Trophy and I've seen the programme leading up to that game," he says. "We have a four-day game [starting today at Taunton], then we have a day off where we travel to Sussex for a four-day match [at Arundel]. Then, the day after that game finishes, it's a Pro40 match, followed by a day off, then another four-day game [against Warwickshire at the Rose Bowl]. Then we travel that Friday night to play at Lord's on the Saturday."

Hampshire, in other words, will arrive at Lord's to play Sussex - feisty opponents in recent years following high-profile spats between Shane Warne on the one hand and Chris Adams and Matt Prior on the other - having played for a potential 13 of the previous 15 days. Whatever it is, it may not be a blueprint for excellence. And Fletcher believes the congested fixture-list means mid-season tampering with technique can do more harm than good.

"You see faults, but you don't dare correct them until the end of the season because there isn't enough time to implement them," he says. Counter-intuitively, it seems, the county cricket season is precisely the wrong time to be working on cricket.

What, then, is the solution? Back in 1999, during his final season as coach of Glamorgan before he took up the England job, Fletcher proposed a first-class set-up that, he says, left him feeling like a "villain". In essence, he wanted to reduce the number of first-class fixtures while maintaining the freshness of county cricket by ensuring the same teams didn't play each year in, year out - a scenario that is starting to feel familiar to some of the perennial members of the second division.

Fletcher wanted to reduce the number of first-class fixtures while maintaining the freshness of county cricket by ensuring the same teams didn't play each year in, year out - a scenario that is starting to feel familiar to some of the perennial members of the second division

Fletcher says you would use the finishing positions from the previous season to divide the 18 first-class counties into two groups of nine: teams with even-numbered finishing positions in one group, odd-numbered in the other. Each team then plays the other eight in its league once, with the top two in each division contesting semi-finals and finals. The remaining teams would then play off against teams finishing in similar positions in the other division, leaving sides playing around 10 four-day games a season each - they currently play 16 - and rotating the identity of the opposition.

For the moment, though, county cricket shows no sign of changing, but that does not mean Fletcher has not liked what he has seen on the south coast. He helped out the county during a pre-season trip to his home city of Cape Town, and has been enjoying the cut and thrust of dressing-room life in the first week of a month-long spell this time round.

"I still get a buzz," says Fletcher, who will return to England in September for another fortnight's work. "It's fantastic. It's very impressive here at Hampshire, well-structured and professional. Giles White is doing a very good job as coach. Tony Middleton's a good academy director, they've got a good young bowling coach in Jon Ayling, and Iain Brunnschweiler is doing very well as fitness coach. They're young and enthusiastic.

"I'm basically here just to pass on my experience in a consultancy role. It's similar to what I was doing with South Africa, where I was talking to the coaches and giving the players guidance in technique. There's a slight administrative side too. I cover the whole cricket umbrella, if you like. I'm trying to add value to the system already in place."

Fletcher's reputation during his time with England - when they won Test series against every team bar India - was of a technically astute details man, a figure who could be driven to distraction if a batsman failed to dive for a tight single or was run out at the non-striker's end by a deflection. The rigour still burns bright.

"What county cricket needs is for coaches to keep reminding people that sometimes you just have to go back to the basics," he says. "I've said I don't want to hear at Hampshire the words 'bad luck' if a batsman is run out at the non-striker's end because the ball has touched the bowler's fingers. It's a matter of technique. It's your fault. You should tell the batsman, 'You're bloody stupid'."

They don't hand out prizes at the end of each season to the county side with the fewest careless errors, but if they did, it's safe to assume Hampshire would probably be pushing for honours come September.

Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk