March 23, 2013

What is the secret of Fletcher's longevity?

India's coach has clearly not produced results, so how come he has got an extension?

Indian cricket has decided to stick with head coach Duncan Fletcher, a move that forces us to ask an emphatic "Why?" Clearly Fletcher's India report card isn't one that bears testimony to success. On the contrary, his first term as coach has been among the worst periods in Indian cricket.

India's unwavering yet thoughtless patronage of Fletcher comes at a price. If one is to read between the lines, this extension is effectively for two years, for it is highly unlikely that a new coach will take over just a year before the next World Cup. By the end of his extension, in 2014, India will have invested three valuable years in him and it would only be prudent to carry on with him for another year in the bid to defend the World Cup crown in 2015 - which also means that India's best chances of switching over to a more adept coach will have been recklessly wasted.

After the disastrous twin tours to England and Australia, and the debacle at home against England, it was thought that Fletcher's job was on the line. But just as most players were persisted with in the wake of the whitewash, so was it with Fletcher. Since the man never speaks to the media, and players aren't allowed to speak on internal issues either, it has been impossible to gauge Fletcher's contribution to the team. Still, the scrutiny is inevitable and justifiable, since Fletcher is a professional, drawing a handsome salary.

I remember asking Jason Gillespie, the former Australia fast bowler who is now a coach at Yorkshire, about the yardsticks by which a coach can be judged. Since he has been on both sides of the fence, first as a cricketer dealing with various coaches and now as a coach dealing with players, I expected him to provide some perspective, and he didn't disappoint. He categorically said that a coach at international level must be judged only on the results the team has produced under him. Since such a coach is dealing with elite sportspersons (you'd like to believe that players representing their country are almost finished products), his job is to bring out the best in those players and make the team win more often. If he is not producing results, either the players under his charge should be changed or he himself must make way.

How has Fletcher performed based on these parameters? When he took over, the team was on a high, for they had not only won the World Cup after 28 years, they had also managed to draw a series in South Africa for the first time in their history. Both the ODI and Test units were pretty sorted at that stage, or at least the results seemed to say so.

While Fletcher did well in his first assignment, the tour to the Caribbean, the Test match in Dominica left a bad taste in the mouth. The No. 1 Test team, had quite inexplicably, and cynically, settled for a draw when victory had been in sight. It felt like not losing the match had been the first objective, and only once that had been achieved was victory considered an option.

That was Fletcher's first series as India's coach and he was rightly given the benefit of doubt. Unfortunately, things went downhill from there.

Fletcher's having worked with the England team and knowing their game inside out was considered to be his strength. Since India were to tour England in the summer of 2011, he was looked at as the ideal man to guide them. But from bowling spinners right after lunch at Lord's (after Ishant Sharma's spell had raised Indian hopes) to having Rahul Dravid open the innings after he had carried his bat through in the first innings, most of the team's tactical decisions felt inadequate.

Since India has been in a transitional phase, we could go easy on judging Fletcher with regard to his contribution to player evolution. But while you may not be able to teach seasoned international cricketers the basics, you can always do a bit of hand-holding, provide technical inputs, and boost morale when they need it most

Matters didn't improve on the next overseas assignment, to Australia, where India played an almost identical XI (barring the absence of MS Dhoni in the final Test, because of a ban) through the 0-4 rout. The reluctance to change even the batting order, let alone the playing XI, while the side was losing comprehensively didn't feel right.

While India went on to win against West Indies and New Zealand at home and Sri Lanka in an ODI series away, they faltered in all the big events they played in: apart from the twin whitewashes, they did poorly in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, the CB Series in Australia, the Asia Cup in Bangladesh, and in the ODIs against Pakistan at home.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the side's first home Test series loss to England since 1985. While India managed to win the ODI series against a depleted England side (they rested four of their main players), and have now nearly returned the favour to the Australians in the current series, it does precious little to improve the Indian team's abysmal record under Fletcher.

So if it wasn't the results that prompted the extension given to Fletcher, what was it? While the coach of a national team is judged on results, a coach who heads a team playing one level below - state, county or Shield cricket - is assessed a little differently, for teams at that level are a mix of experience and youth. As much as there is the wish to win the championship every season, state teams focus nearly as much on the development of the squad for the long run.

Since India has been in a transitional phase (though that only really started 18 months into Fletcher's tenure, when Dravid and VVS Laxman retired), we could go easy on judging Fletcher with regard to his contribution to player evolution. But while you may not be able to teach seasoned international cricketers the basics of the game, you can always do a bit of hand-holding, provide technical inputs, and boost morale when they need it most.

India's poor run of form was also partially because the players who formed the core of the team failed for a very long time. Isn't it the coach's duty to stem the tide? If Virender Sehwag wasn't firing, ought not the coach to have sat him down and talked him into finding a different game plan to succeed? If Gautam Gambhir was going through a long lean patch because of minor technical shortcomings, shouldn't Fletcher have stepped in to rectify those faults? If Zaheer Khan wasn't looking fit or Harbhajan Singh wasn't turning the ball as he used to, both of them should have been talked to and out of the holes they found themselves in. Not to forget, it was imperative for India's success to bring back the Sachin Tendulkar of old. Good coaches do that and more.

When a team is going through a transition, it is imperative to make the best of available resources and not lose more players than you must to things beyond one's control. Once Dravid and Laxman called it quits, it was important for Indian cricket that Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir, Zaheer and Harbhajan, along with Dhoni, formed a nucleus and took the team forward. As things stand now, it's unlikely that Dhoni will have any of the names playing under him by the end of Fletcher's latest extension.

If Fletcher tried his hand at restoration work, it hasn't worked so far. One, the results haven't been impressive. Two, there has been no clear indication that the players are becoming better cricketers. Then why has Fletcher's stay been extended?

If it's only about Dhoni and Co backing him to continue, it must be said that even the most established players are dropped after a poor run at the top, so it's only fair to apply the same logic to the coach. It's all right to take players' input into consideration while appointing a coach, but if a school's management is to pick teachers based on students' recommendations, the teacher that makes the students work the least will win the contest hands down.

"Don't fix what isn't broken" has its merits, but it's tough to figure out India's reluctance to fix what has been broken into several pieces over two years.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here