Steve James: The Plan June 9, 2012

Inside England's success story

Sam Collins
This account of the 13 years it took to become No. 1 - from Fletcher to Flower - is a must-read for fans of English cricket

For those with a royalist bent, much of this English week has been all about celebrating the past and looking to the future, so it seems appropriate to be discussing a book that is essentially a modern history of the men ruling English cricket. Steve James' The Plan takes the reader through the 13 years it took England to rise from the bottom to the top of the world Test rankings between 1999 and 2011, while profiling the coaches, captains and administrators who effected the transformation.

The Plan actually comes from a much-used Zimbabwean phrase "making a plan", one that the author tells us is especially used in times of trouble, of which there was a lot for English cricket fans in that 1999 summer. But if there was no cunning "plan" for English cricket in the Baldrick sense back then, there was at least intent on behalf of the England and Wales Cricket Board, coupled with a fair bit of luck, which helped put some tremendously skilful coaches in position. That refers first to Duncan Fletcher and then Andy Flower, and it is they who The Plan is most concerned with.

James is a former Glamorgan (and briefly England) opening batsman who succeeded Michael Atherton as columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Ex-pros can be the subject of lazy generalisations when they move into the press box, but James' quiet excellence, uncomplicated style and informed perspective make his Sunday column a "don't-miss", as one respected ex-correspondent put it to me. The Plan is more of the same.

He was certainly in a unique position to write this book, having played under Fletcher at Glamorgan and ghosted two books for him, and been a friend of the Flower family for over 20 years. The author declares his hand at the start. Is the potential bias a problem? No - as befits a batsman with close to 50 first-class centuries, he is (almost) unerringly balanced. James is present throughout, breaking up the history lesson with his own memories and experiences of those involved. This is his story and he makes it compelling. I don't fish, and I don't think James does either, but I could imagine it being told over several easy afternoons on the river bank.

Given the scope, James' achievement is to make a 13-year summation digestible. He manages not to get drawn into the cricketing politics of the wider world, and was deliberately selective with those he interviewed (neither Fletcher nor Flower among those spoken to). The result is an unashamedly England-centric book that feels informed but never flooded. Running chronologically from the appointment of Fletcher and Nasser Hussain back in that miserable summer of '99, through the periods of Michael Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff, Peter Moores, and on to Andrew Strauss and Flower, very little is left untouched in James' thorough analysis. He is at pains to be fair - never better illustrated than by his excellent dissection of Moores' unfortunate time in charge.

Amid the Diamond Jubilee hype, Moores stands as proof that successions are not always ideal, and with Flower and Strauss unlikely to last 60 years (James himself cannot see Flower lasting much longer) stage three of "The Plan" - if Fletcher was stage one and Flower stage two - could yet be the most important for the legacy. James observes how England have struggled to make the most of players in the last third of their international careers, and with an ageing core (Strauss 35, Swann 33, Pietersen 32 this month, Trott 31, Prior 30, Anderson 30 next month) it serves notice that the next few years will have to be handled carefully. Mick Newell of Nottinghamshire and Andy Hurry of Somerset are among those being monitored as Flower's successor, but much depends on whether the Moores experience has scarred the board from appointing within the English system.

There will be other pressures too. If The Plan charts genuine progress on and off the pitch for England, it is clear there is still work to do. Just as the England team has become a ruthlessly efficient cricketing machine under Flower, so the cricketing side of the ECB (led by Hugh Morris) seems to have learned from the mistakes of the '90s and mid-2000s. With schedules unrelenting and Twenty20 leagues springing up everywhere, providing players with potential riches and difficult choices, the alternatives to Test cricket and the threats to national boards are a clear and present danger. Time will tell whether plonking the front foot down, as the ECB has seen fit to do with the recent Pietersen affair, is the best way forward.

Back to The Plan, and one final word. James was the man handed Justin Langer's Ashes dossier in 2009, and in scolding himself for his initial indifference to a genuine scoop, he neatly sums up what is a major strength of his own book. "What I was forgetting here was the thrill for the members of the public of being on the inside, however fleetingly; of suddenly being privy to thoughts and observations that are usually out of their reach. Every fan craves to be inside the dressing room". Let James take you there.

The Plan: How Fletcher and Flower Transformed English Cricket
by Steve James
Bantam Press

Sam Collins is 50% of The Chuck Fleetwood-Smiths and writer/producer of Death of a Gentleman

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Kieron on June 10, 2012, 15:29 GMT

    England stand no chance against SA!!!! So called best bowling in the world!!! The English are full of themselves! If the wheather stay fine this summer, it will be 2-0 or 3-0 to Sa! One thing is for sure, Bresnan's unbeaten record will be broken, and England won't win a single game! Maybe a onedayer and a 20/20 game! But that's all Folks!

  • Johnathon on June 10, 2012, 2:19 GMT

    England fail in Sri Lanka and Pakistan (Abu Dhabai) and are still number 1, but India fails in England and Australia and they are not number 1. Yes, I can understand why the Indian fans are so mad. But the difference was, India has lost 8-0 on the trot outside of home. England has only lost 3 of their outside games and that was not in a row

  • Nadeem on June 10, 2012, 1:46 GMT

    England is really the number 1 team in test cricket. They drew the series against Sri lanka in Sri Lanka is proof that they deserve that rank. I would love to see how they play against SA at home and then against India in India. If they draw or win both series they will cement their place as real dominant team.

    Aussies were on top of test cricket for 9 years and that's why people don't accept any other nation with only 1 year of dominance as number 1 in their mind.

    England has really improved in test cricket and their 2005 ashes heist is still the best series i have seen in my life. Congratulations for first making good plan and then achieving those goals. Great job England. You used to be boring team but not now.

  • Phil on June 9, 2012, 21:44 GMT

    @cloudmess & @rahulcricket007: so England can only beat every other team because those teams are weak. This means they are not number one. Which of the other weak teams should be number one instead? Perhaps the Aussie team of the 90s & 00s were only number one because the other teams weren't very good or they wouldn't have been number one if there was a team better than them about at the time.

  • Rajdeep on June 9, 2012, 21:11 GMT

    JeremyStone- i said over the last decade, India have been better in unfamilier conditions. that includes more than just those 2 series you mention, in which India were of course thrashed. I also never said they were masters of the unfamilier. Similarly, i said Anderson is only a good bowler in favourable conditions. I never said he was toothelss away from home. Australia counts as familier conditions, even if it is away from home.

  • Rajneesh on June 9, 2012, 18:03 GMT

    England cricket has certainly transformed and they have a team that will be a force to reckon with in next 2-3 years. No doubt they will put up a great fight in subcontinent this winter. Having said that, it has been a less than a year for England at No 1. position. They can lose it to South Africa this summer if they get beaten. I hope SA put up better fight than India who turned out to be damp squib last year. I'm an Indian fan but have to take India's last year's performance up the chin.

  • Dummy4 on June 9, 2012, 17:33 GMT

    I guess the point of the book is to analyse why England got better, under Fletcher and Flower, than they had been before that. There isn't much dispute about the improvement, unlike the question whether (and if so under what conditions, and to what degree) they are better than all the other sides. Perhaps, as cloudmess observes, it is a mistake to attack this issue by looking at the results.

    Equally, regarding the points made by Hello13, since India are masters of the unfamiliar, we should ignore the fact that India lost 4-0 in England in 2011 and then 4-0 in Australia. Likewise, it must be a mistake that Anderson took 24 wickets in Australia in 2010 and 18 in subcontinental conditions last winter; a bowler toothless away from home, clearly.

  • Dummy4 on June 9, 2012, 17:21 GMT

    The true plan was executed by the administrators who fostered the gradual creation of a mediocre game, played by mediocre players and won by mediocre teams. Starting from curtailing bouncers, through the adoption of one rule after another to make batting as risk free as possible, through weeding out potential for reverse swing by allowing for rapid ball swaps, the game has been rid of all flavor, beauty and genius. The age of giants is over. No wonder the dwarfs have risen to claim the throne.

  • Rajdeep on June 9, 2012, 16:56 GMT

    riddiculous. England got to number one winning in familier conditions, preparing pitches to suit their bowlers. the second they go into the subcontinent, they get hammered. Anderson is a nothing bowler unless he is playing in favourable conditions, unlike the great bowlers of this era who are effective no matter where they play. Over the last decade Indias record in unfamilier conditions is much better than Englands.

  • David on June 9, 2012, 14:15 GMT

    rahulcricket - I agree the rankings are a joke, that they dare to consider others series other than just the most recent one v Pakistan. That they totally over-hype the English team by basing the rankings on England's series results over the last 3 years, ie 2-0 v WI (2009), 2-1 v Australia (2009), 1-1 v SA (2009 - 10), 4-0 v Bangladesh (2010), 3-1 v Pakistan (2010), 3-1 v Australia (2010 - 11), 1-0 v SL (2011), 4-0 v India (2011). And all against such incredibly weak teams!! And just because they've been better than all of these other incredibly weak sides they dare say they are no 1 team last year!!!

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