March 16, 2014

Is Duncan Fletcher a soft target?

Gaurav Kalra
The Indian coach has been roasted after the team's recent below-par performances. But is the criticism fair?

The headline writers were like kids in a candy store. "ECB reject", "1.5 out of 10", "No achievements" - take your pick. Sunil Gavaskar, the great man himself, was seething with rage.

At the receiving end was a man who wouldn't win a popularity contest if he were the only one participating. Gavaskar's impassioned demand for Duncan Fletcher's immediate sacking has expectedly gained plenty of traction. Patience is running thin after a string of below-par results and India's cricket watching public wants a sacrificial lamb. Now with the endorsement of a legendary voice, Fletcher and his minions have been identified. "Off with their heads," Gavaskar exhorts. "Yes, yes we must," the followers chant excitedly.

On cue, a chain of equally fierce opinion providers jostled for space. Farokh Engineer lowered Gavaskar's 1.5 rating for Fletcher to 0.5. Bishan Bedi described him as a "mercenary". Madan Lal bellowed that even his own record overseas as India coach was better than Fletcher's. The lynch mob was out in force. It is an almost patented Indian formula - once a prominent figure makes a fervent case, jump on the bandwagon and muscle into popular opinion.

There is no debating the central point of Gavaskar's argument. India's record during Fletcher's term has been uninspiring. India began with a series win in the West Indies after Fletcher replaced Gary Kirsten in 2011 but the team has floundered dramatically since, especially in Test cricket.

Starting with the wretched tour of England in 2011, India have lost ten of their 12 overseas Tests and drawn the other two. At home, while Australia and West Indies have been brushed aside, a series was lost to England for the first time in nearly three decades. In one-day cricket, while the Champions Trophy and a few others have been captured, India have been beaten in series in England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. In the only World T20 under Fletcher's watch, in 2012, the team failed to make the semi-finals.

Clearly, the record stacks up against Fletcher and in favour of Gavaskar's argument. What is surprising, though, is the lack of nuance in Gavaskar's attack. For a man of his eminence to identify Fletcher not just as the villain of the piece but question his hard-earned credentials is poor form. It might win him brownie points with equally irate "fans" but it borders on populism.

Gavaskar described Fletcher as an "ECB reject". Fletcher's term as England coach may have ended after their inglorious exit from the 2007 World Cup but in eight years at the helm he oversaw a pretty special period. England won away series in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies and South Africa, besides the crowing glory of his reign - a first Ashes win in 18 years. His services, to quote Gavaskar, may have been "dispensed with" but he was no "reject". As India coach, Fletcher may have faltered but was it appropriate to tarnish his body of work simply to embellish an argument?

Once warmed up, Gavaskar was unstoppable. "In Fletcher's tenure, there has hardly been any improvement as a team. There has been no improvement of players individually also," he argued. Now is that really the case? Were India as poor in South Africa and New Zealand as they had been in England and Australia over that wretched 0-8 run in 2011-12? Or were there signs that the men replacing the giants in the middle order were showing the gumption for their task?

It's worth casting a close eye on the individuals who have been under Fletcher's tutelage since he took the India job. Virat Kohli made a shaky Test debut in Fletcher's first series as coach in the West Indies. He is now a much more assured player in whites, having made centuries in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Is Gavaskar convinced Fletcher has made no contribution to Kohli's evolution as a Test batsman? If Kohli has improved, and he undeniably has by leaps and bounds, has Fletcher perhaps played a minuscule role?

Take Shikhar Dhawan. After a terrible series in South Africa, Dhawan succeeded in turning it around with a century and another near triple-figure score in New Zealand. Were the improved performances down to Dhawan's diligence alone? Was it perhaps possible that Fletcher identified flaws that were responsible for Dhawan's failures in South Africa and helped him iron those out in time for the challenge in New Zealand? After all, that is what coaches are hired to do.

If Fletcher is to lose his job can Dhoni keep his, especially in Test cricket? Or is Fletcher the soft target, conveniently offered up with his head on a platter at this uncomfortable time?

When Gavaskar says, "Fletcher has done nothing", is that an assumption or an informed view? Have these players, or any others for that matter, confided in Gavaskar that the coach has contributed nothing to their progress? If not, was Gavaskar's assertion simply a punchline for a narrative he was determined to push?

With hindsight as an ally, Gavaskar questioned Fletcher's appointment after India's World Cup win in 2011. "His achievements as a cricketer weren't anything incredible. Fletcher never had the credentials of Gary Kirsten or John Wright, who were achievers in international cricket.

"The way things work in India is completely different," Gavaskar said, going on to speak of how Indian teams had had success under former India players. Now any serious cricket follower will endorse that this has become an argument of convenience, routinely strutted out when a coach is to be ousted. Even with the rider that "things work differently in India", does history not provide evidence to the contrary? For all his achievements, was Kapil Dev's term as India coach not staggeringly forgettable? Sri Lanka isn't India's polar opposite culturally, so how does Gavaskar explain the success of Tom Moody and Dav Whatmore as coaches in that country despite moderate international records?

In fact, look around the globe at the moment and one's stature as a former international appears to count for precious little. Darren Lehmann, credited with Australia's thrilling recent resurgence, doesn't own a record that makes jaws drop. After Kirsten's exit, top-ranked South Africa promoted his assistant, Russell Domingo, who had never played a first-class game, let alone a Test. Mike Hesson, another non-Test cricketer, replaced the pedigreed John Wright in the New Zealand job. And under Hesson's watch the Black Caps are not doing too badly for themselves.

By accident or design, Gavaskar's onslaught focuses the spotlight on one individual and diverts attention off others. In the course of his bombast Gavaskar asked, "If Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh, all stalwarts of Indian cricket can be dropped on poor form then why not drop support staff for poor performance?" Reasonable you would think, but does Gavaskar hold the same position with regard to the Indian captain?

Surely, if Fletcher is to lose his job, can Dhoni keep his, especially in Test cricket? Does Gavaskar believe a new skipper should be installed when India tour England in July? Surely he is not suggesting the captain sits below the coach in the pecking order, either while receiving accolades or shouldering responsibility? Or is Fletcher the soft target, conveniently offered up with his head on a platter at this uncomfortable time?

Indian cricket functions in the chaos of unshackled opinion. The onus on men such as Sunil Gavaskar is not to fuel angst, but to bring balance to conversations. This is an onerous responsibility and isn't served by convenient outpourings of vitriol at carefully chosen moments. Leaders must provoke thought, not outrage.

Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo