November 18, 2013

The cult of Flower?

England's coach is so influential, you have to wonder if he has brought the role of football's all-powerful manager to cricket

It was the most stirring image of England's 2010-11 Ashes mirabilis. Not Tim Bresnan taking the final wicket in Melbourne or Chris Tremlett in Sydney; not the sprinkler; not the scoreboards which read "England 1/517" or "Australia 3/2". When the Ashes were retained, Andrew Strauss left the MCG field triumphantly. He was walking down the tunnel when he met Andy Flower halfway; the pair enjoyed a brief, proud embrace.

It was a rare example of public affection between two men whose bond was usually implied. Never mind Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann; Flower and Strauss was the real bromance of the 2009-12 England team. All evidence and understanding points to their relationship being abnormally strong, and it was clearly one of the key factors in England's golden period. The bond between Alastair Cook and Flower may not yet be as strong, but it is of a similar nature - as captain, Cook is essentially a mini-Strauss - and will be a key strength in the attempt to win a fourth consecutive Ashes series. Some feel it will also be a weakness.

A team can win without a good relationship between captain and coach but it is not an advisable business model. The recent history of the England team confirms as much. The best periods have come during strong coach/captain relationships: Flower-Strauss, Flower-Cook, Duncan Fletcher-Nasser Hussain, Fletcher-Michael Vaughan. The darkest times came between 2006 and 2009, when Fletcher's relationship with Andrew Flintoff broke down and both Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen struggled to work with Peter Moores' workaholism.

The success of Flower's relationship with Cook and particularly Strauss stems inevitably from shared values, most of which are alien to modern society: organisation, discipline, responsibility, integrity, a belief in doing things properly and privately. Yet if their values are of an old-school nature, their tactics are entirely modern. They believe in a passive-aggressive approach that involves bowling dry and starving impatient modern batsmen of their oxygen: runs. There are occasional exceptions - such as Strauss successfully placing Cook at backward silly point against Yuvraj Singh at Trent Bridge in 2011 - but essentially England do things by the book.

Or rather the MacBook. They have an intractable belief in statistics. Never mind betting; in the England dressing room all kinds of gambling are unofficially outlawed. Decisions are taken because of logic and hard evidence, not instinct. As a result England find themselves in the unusual position of being derided for being too modern, such is their perceived defensiveness. Interestingly, such an approach was introduced by Vaughan, who was generally hailed rather than criticised for revolutionising the perceived orthodoxy of field settings.

Eight years on, England's fields are not sexy enough. Or, rather, not funky enough. That became the unlikely word of the Ashes in the summer, with various commentators contrasting the "funky" fields of Michael Clarke with those of Cook. Even Strauss used the word, albeit with the fair degree of contempt you would expect for a man whose belief in his former team's methodology in unshakeable. Cook might privately acknowledge a degree of puppetry in his field settings; not because he is weak, but because he concurs with the ideas imposed by Flower. As a former choirboy, he knows plenty about singing from the same hymn sheet.

He is keen to point out that tactics are only a small part of cricket. "I've always said I'm trying to learn on the job," he said recently after Shane Warne's 708th public critique of him. "And, yes, there will be times when I could be a bit more imaginative and think slightly differently. There are two sides to the job and the unseen one is the man management in the dressing room and how you handle certain individuals. But I will be judged on results."

Cook was justly praised for his Vaughan-like calmness in the excruciating denouement at Trent Bridge last summer; he leads by run-laden example and seems to have easily found the delicate balance of being captain while still retaining strong, jokey friendships. He did not get the credit he deserves for his fearless and seamless reintegration of Pietersen. And he might point out that world cricket's most celebrated captains, Clarke and Brendon McCullum, have a combined Test record of P20 W1 D7 L12 in 2013. That record is funky only in the malodorous sense. Statsguru does not have a filter for eye-catching fields.

Cook might privately acknowledge a degree of puppetry in his field settings; not because he is weak, but because he concurs with the ideas imposed by Flower

Cook seems entirely happy to go along with Flower's approach, although it is legitimate to wonder how much of that approach comes naturally to him and how much he has unconsciously absorbed from the Strauss/Flower years. The same is true of the players. Flower is a deceptively charismatic man whose hold over the England dressing room, not just Cook, is enormous. You suspect they would crawl to the ends of the earth for him - or, more painful still, go to a pre-Ashes boot camp in Germany. In his autobiography, Matt Prior says, "I never argue with Andy!" If a soft exclamation mark existed, Prior might have used that; he was surely only half-joking. Graeme Swann, in his 2011 book, said "You just don't mess about with Andy; you get the feeling he used to be an assassin or something like that."

Nobody messes with Andy. His stare could make hell volunteer to freeze itself. This is not an entirely good thing. The evangelism of the England dressing room, which surely stems from Flower, has rubbed plenty up the wrong way, and there is legitimate concern that they are sometimes too intractable. Some would blame that lack of flexibility for the failure to come even close to maximising the terrifying potential of Steven Finn, for example. There is also an argument that the limitations of England's methodical approach were exposed in South Africa in 2012; that the only times they troubled South Africa were through sheer dramatic bursts of ability from Pietersen at Headingley and Finn at Lord's. Against that, this is evidently a very happy dressing room, in which all the players buy into Flower's doctrine. He created a strength and unity that rapidly propelled an excellent but not great team to unimaginable heights.

It would nonetheless be interesting to see how he would work funkier captains like Clarke and McCullum - or even Vaughan, who liked to run with instinct. Vaughan's most famous dismissal as captain, Matthew Hayden's first-baller at Edgbaston in 2005, came about because he had a hunch as he went onto the field and decided to add a short extra cover to the pre-planned man just off the cut strip. Hayden drove straight to Strauss at short extra.

When England won in Adelaide in 2010-11, Flower described it as "the perfect Test", almost as if it had been programmed on computer. Yet England are not just automatons: they are capable of exhilarating, almost vigilante demolitions of opponents, as they showed at Trent Bridge in 2011 and Durham last summer in particular. We rarely see such performances; but when we do, they evoke the most off-the-cuff team of all, Pakistan.

It might be tempting to conclude, such is the influence of Flower, that English cricket has started to follow the cult of the manager evident in English football. Far more likely is that Flower is a coach with an unusually strong personality, capable of inspiring rare levels of loyalty. To some extent his players are also his disciples. This creates a formidable environment. But it also means that England - and Cook in particular - could be a little lost when he decides to move on.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Naveen on November 20, 2013, 14:15 GMT

    @ Emancipator007 - Cook had to bring back KP inorder to win....In the absence of KP England was having tough time with South Africa and club level WestIndies Team. Andy flower probably played it through cook. Cook as a rookie super imaginative skipper had to go by it.

    FYI!! Swan and broad or clever cricketers who would do anything to please the boss. They do not have any flair whatsoever.

  • Dummy4 on November 19, 2013, 12:27 GMT

    The game is 5 days, and when you look at the bowling attack, they are a group, not a group of individuals. It doesn't matter if you win with the last ball of the last day. On these pitches that is a reasonable tactic to win matches. Endless run starving pressure with decent bowlers bowling a decent line with a bit of pace, bounce and swing.

    we don't have a Marshall, or an Akram, so that's the brand of cricket england play.

  • Paulo on November 18, 2013, 19:50 GMT

    The Strauss-Flower partnership was brilliant for English cricket. What they managed to achieve in the long form of the game was a nice moment for us Englishmen. 2011 in particular was an incredible year in test cricket. They managed to get Cook, Trott, Bell, Prior to have their best years. Anderson stepped up that year as well by proving he could bowl abroad and Tremlett and Bresnan were brilliant as well.

    Don't forget also that we won the WT20 under Flower (with Collingwood captain- yes we scraped through the group stage but after that were the best team) and got to number 1 in all 3 forms for a very short period last year.

    The challenge for Cook is continuing success. He is very similar to Strauss- perhaps tactically a bit too defensive but he gets results and his a terrific captain off the field. But Cook's problem is that Bell, Trott, Pietersen, Prior, Swann and Anderson are all over 30 and past their best (maybe not bell). Cook will need to esnure our youngsters come through.

  • David on November 18, 2013, 10:57 GMT

    England will continue to cop flak over their style of play because they are a good, but not great, side. When Australia beat WI in 1960/61, in a very exciting series, Richie Benaud felt that it put right a lot of the negative and dull cricket of the previous 10 years. Those 10 years were, of course, the period when England had a truly great side - Hutton, Compton, May, Laker, Lock, Trueman, Statham, Wardle, Bedser, Tyson. If the Aussies didn't care much for that side, then who gives a stuff what they think? They never like English success in anything. England to win 4-1.

  • Phillip on November 18, 2013, 8:56 GMT

    Flower isn't even a coach.The media refer to him as 'The English cricket teams's Director'.

  • John on November 18, 2013, 6:29 GMT

    Flower understands that teamwork demands discipline. If everybody does their own thing, the result is a shambles- we saw that in England in the 1990s and Australia have gone through it this year (we'll see shortly whether they've overcome their issues). That doesn't mean there's no room for flair; Australia set England 226 to win in 44 overs in the final test of the last series and England made 205 of them in 40 overs before the light intervened.

    Cook is an experienced player but a relatively young and inexperienced captain. So far he has hardly put a foot wrong, with a record of W.9, D.6, L.1 and those (like the well-known comedian/commentator Shane Warne) who dismiss him as too negative haven't got the statistics to back up their claim.

    Flower's time as leader of England's off-field management is probably fairly near its end. Hopefully the lessons he has instilled will be remembered and followed for a long time to come.

  • PALLAB on November 18, 2013, 5:25 GMT

    Let's get this out of the way; Andy is one of the best w/k bats in international cricket history, boasted of a Test average of 50 before Gilly/Sangakarra era, almost every run scored against higher-ranked teams. 2 masterclass 100s against giants SA & conquered raging bowl turners in India better than many heralded bats. But turning out to be a dictator-asking-for-conformity behind the scenes as Eng coach. A classic gloss over:How is Andy's intractable approach to reintegrating Pietersen (both Strauss-Andy ganged up on him),the most decisive English batsman after Gooch overlooked? It took the sagacity of Cook (kudos for a rookie skipper) to understand what KP's value stood for. Give me an instinctive Gower,Botham,R. Smith, Lamb,Tufnell.D.Malcolm anyday over English automatons playing out drilled roles on the cricket field (though "methodical" Gooch was a titanic performer against world-conquering Caribbean Calypsos).Next to rebel against this regime wud be irascible Swanny-Broad pair.

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