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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2014, 8:57 GMT

    Sack him & Dhoni

    Make R Sharma the IPL winner the captain & make Kapil or Azharrudin the coach

    Azhar was the best tactician on field as he won a lot despite very limited capability team

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2014, 19:46 GMT

    Excellent Gaurav. Time & again, specially in tests Dhoni's captaincy has been unimaginative & uninspiring. Mr. Gavaskar never uttered a single word on that, probably to stay on BCCI's good book I suppose.

  • Mahesh on March 18, 2014, 7:29 GMT

    Oh...what a wonderful article! Such kind of intelligent articles make this site ultra-good :) Thank you.

  • santosh on March 18, 2014, 5:36 GMT

    @Vijay Kinra: why the surprise over the comments? When was the last time that you heard of an Ind team that were good travelers (i.e, to Pak, S Lanka, Eng, Aus, NZ, WI and SA -- it's pretty much of the cricketing world, unless you want to include Zim and Bngldesh) on a consistent basis? There was a period during the captaincy of Ganguly, extending to the period of Dravid, to Kumble's, and to Dhoni's, where we could be considered competitive; not champions, but very very scrappy -- and that was good enough for us. Considering the fact that we've been in the game almost since its inception, have had at least a few champion batsmen who would walk into a World 11 (or 15), a great tradition of spin bowling, and at least one champion paceman, twice WC winners and, most of all, our general madness for the game, is it too much to expect that we have a good Test side in all conditions? Fletcher is just a side story, and not an old one at that.

  • Satesh on March 18, 2014, 3:09 GMT

    If you can take Kohli's success in international cricket as a success because of DC, how will you rate DC on Raina's failure(who was a prime batsman untill then) and mainly the peak performer in all the main away tours or icc tourneys, Gautam Gambhir's set back? He was rock solid in all the important matches won by India. Because of him, we were able to score well in both both world cup finals that we won. Because of him, we won many tall chases. Along with him, Virat had grown in confidence. So, he played a role in grooming Virat the chaser he is now. Mainly, because of him, we did so well in overseas tests in New Zealand and South Africa. No denying that. For me, Fletcher had done no good to Indian cricket. His tenure is much like Greg Chappell's. Though India won matches in India, we faired so poorly elsewhere even then. No one can deny the fact that India won back2back series held in India just before the total failure in 2007 WC. I stronly go with Gavaskar's words in this case.

  • Prem on March 17, 2014, 22:59 GMT

    India need a hard-nosed coach like Greg Chappell. The "big stars" ruled the roost under Fletcher and the team became complacent. Someone who can make tough decisions like Chappell did to sack Ganguly and push the winning spirit over individual performances is needed at the moment.

  • Dummy4 on March 17, 2014, 20:17 GMT

    What is wrong with all the comments here? Let's look at the results since Fletcher (and actually Joe Dawes as well) came in:

    -Yuvraj, Raina are worse off than before. Raina still can't play the short ball -Our pace bowling is now likely the worst in the world. Bowlers who had some potential like RP Singh, Munaf, Dinda, Nehra are nowhere to be found as they've become worse -The reason we didn't play Mishra and Pujara in NZ and dead rubbers is beyond me. So strategically, Fletcher has failed completely -Our team is #5 in ODIs and #6 in tests. I'm not talking about the official rankings as they lag by about a year. Today India will not reach the semi finals in the world cup -India is doing nothing strategically that is brilliant.

    Regarding Dhoni, well, he should not be test captain and likely can't find a place in the test team as a wicketkeeper batsman so we all need to embrace that reality. In ODI Dhoni is a top player and we shouldn't change the capt now. Regarding Fletcher, SACK HIM

  • uncle bob on March 17, 2014, 20:06 GMT

    Gaurav, you are an excellent writer. Good article, well thought out and very balanced. I wish he should have been able to through some light on why Gavaskar targeted Duncan. Even though he hinted on it. Having criticized Dhoni for non selection of some mediocre players like Mishra, Pandey, Tiwari, Binni, and disappointed in Kohli who also did not play these players, Mishra, Pandey, Tiwari, Binni fan gang has tried to put pressure on Duncan by calling his head? Look at the timing of the criticism. It smacks a lot of internal politics. Proof? Gavaskar and all bombay ex's were all about praising rohit Sharma even when he was averaging in single digits and now Dhoni is being criticized for keeping Rohit in the team.

  • John on March 17, 2014, 18:01 GMT

    Correct. Fletcher taking over the mantle from Gary Kristen was expected to out perform his predecessor. It is very unfair. He is taking the rap which are meant for team selection panel and Indian players to win abroad. Fletcher has not used the proverbial whip on the players yet - may be his hands are tied. Should he do that as he did with the ECB, then he would get some results out of this IPL pampered team. Also Indian administrators must be wary of bringing in another autocratic coach like Greg Chappell. This could be another reason for Fletcher being gentle with the team of youngsters as Indian team stands now.

  • Anshul on March 17, 2014, 13:57 GMT

    Agree with you Gaurav. A well written, thought provoking piece. The mad rush to grab more eyeballs is obviously the reason why popular media is in such a hurry to fuel heated debates, and not stop to ask the questions that matter. Look forward to your contributions here - I think the written medium agrees more with you than live television :)

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