July 24, 2014

England don't need a visible coach

The team now consists of two halves: a burnt-out one and a fresh one

The best seats in the house belong to the players, not the management © Getty Images

Nelson Mandela has spoken about this. "What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others".

The difference we make to the lives of others is a constant struggle, for we are often busy trying to make a difference in our own. Mandela had his stuff sorted. And so he focused on what he could do to make a difference to the millions who struggled.

In all forms and all levels of endeavour we see attempts to make that difference, whether it be in leading a nation, an organisation, a team or a cause. Cricket does a great job of testing those who are charged with this privilege - coaches.

Unlike in any other sport, the coach in cricket sits and watches for five long days. Once the game has started he has very little influence on the players. Once engaged, the player's mind heads into a tornado of concentrated or confused thoughts, feelings and emotional responses. To play a Test match to its end is akin to putting one's life on hold. Nothing else registers during that period. You don't taste the food you eat, or wonder if the rubbish has been put out. You become entranced with the five-day examination you are about to be put through.

The exception of a Botham, a Miller, or a Sobers is to be noted, as they were able to fit Test matches around their social lives, but the norm is that the Test match sneaks under the skin and rattles you a bit. Sleep becomes nauseating. Nothing really prepares you for the ordeal, and very few coaches can calm the anticipation. It is the ultimate in mental stimulation on a playing field.

Today the dressing room is full of consultants and experts. Most of whom have never tasted the texture of an excruciating dry mouth and numb feet as the moment of playing a first Test series, or any series, envelopes you. Its the oddest thing to see so many helpers, who wouldn't know, lurking with intent, trying to help, to justify their privilege within the inner sanctum of Test match fever.

A Test match sneaks under the skin and rattles you. Sleep becomes nauseating. Nothing really prepares you for the ordeal, and very few coaches can calm the anticipation. It is the ultimate in mental stimulation on a playing field

Mostly, once a test begins, a team operates without too much influence from the throbbing throng of staff, due mainly to the internal conversation the player has with himself, which ensures the well-meaning advice offered mostly goes unheard. Once the ordeal is under way, the player simply has to get on with what he has in his own toolbox, and no advice will really suffice.

This neatly packed marathon series between two middle-ranked teams, England and India, there has been a distinct example of what can work when one coach is on his game and one isn't. In the Indian room is a quiet, dry, tough-as-nails, ageing mentor, Duncan Fletcher. Importantly, you neither hear him nor see him. That was his effective style when working with Michael Vaughan. That's how he was in New Zealand recently, despite the series loss. He allows the players to take control, to be self-sufficient. He looks secure in his role. In the England camp there is Peter Moores. You cant miss him. He's the first one you see, every time. He is out front, in the spotlight, no doubt trying to do the job required; yet he is misguided. He should be secure in the background. Coaches should not be seen. Instead, they should sit quietly, listening.

At Lord's, I saw the insecurity on the England balcony. Throughout the Test match, the cameras that were trained on the home dressing room zoomed in on a recurring theme. The hallowed balcony, once adorned by players, was now constantly inhabited and dominated by the coaches, and in the middle of the conference was the struggling captain.

Symbolically, there was no room for the young excited player to sit in the coveted seats. There was no space to sit and share with other mates, rubbing shoulders in the moment of thrill. Nope, they had no hope of feeling the atmosphere of hovering above the masses. The bench was filled by Moores, Paul Farbrace and Alastair Cook. It was something of a staged defiance. It smacked of a circling of wagons. A bit sad, really.

Fletcher never ventured out into the spotlight, nor the sunlight. He stayed in the backroom, in the calmness of his trust in himself and his troops on the field. And he let the young players enjoy the best seats in the house, soaking up the occasion. And what an occasion it was. A triumphant Indian dousing of a troubled, overloaded leadership group in constant denial.

A front is not what a team needs. It needs straightforward honesty and trust and faith and a backbone. Its not about a coach or anyone not playing, but about those selected to do the job in the middle. Once the game starts, it's vital the team is allowed to breathe, that the rest get out of the way, not sit in the front row and clog the view.

Moores is not only the coach but a selector. In effect he is the judge, the jury and the executioner. It must be too daunting to venture out on to that balcony and confess all to the man of all things (albeit one without any international experience), especially if you are on the wrong side of burnout or are going through a wicked patch. Fletcher is only a tour selector, the team having already been selected for him. There is a difference.

England are a team of two halves - a burnt-out one and a fresh, free-flowing one. The problem for the new mob is that once they are in the team for a few months, the mood will start to change. Take Ben Stokes. As a rookie, he was fearless; now he is shot. Will Sam Robson, Gary Ballance and Moeen Ali improve their game from here?

Then there is Joe Root, the one in the middle of the two halves with two years under his belt, who enjoyed a fun start, then a fearful whack, and is now thriving off his own spark. He should lead this team out and beyond. His batting is one of conviction. Conviction is a bloody good start for a team that has lost so much, so quickly.

India are growing up together, building with purpose. This first away win for a while will generate more growth. They can even afford to leave R Ashwin out, yet you sense MS Dhoni and Fletcher will bring him in at some stage, at the right moment. These leaders know their roles, and the demarcation lines that provide the vital clarity.

Fletcher is making a difference, as he has done before for England, by simply getting out of the way. That's what counts.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Perry on July 25, 2014, 1:13 GMT

    I just read that Jo butler may replace Matt prior as keeper. Again bits and pieces selection. How about a specialist keeper. That's how you win matches by choosing the best . Not by dithering defensiveness. Moore's and co need to take heed.

  • Reg on July 25, 2014, 0:53 GMT

    Just about everyone writing on the subject has been able to spot that England are in big trouble - lord knows it stands out like YKW. But for simplicity and clarity this analysis by Martin Crowe leaves other efforts far behind. We can only hope that this man can get much more involved in NZ cricket, and soon.

  • Dummy4 on July 24, 2014, 23:17 GMT

    "You said it. He's a boy. Too young and inexperienced for captaincy. It would be a burden to him and undermine his batting"

    Yes, theres a danger that he would react in this way, but why is that? The huge pressure England captains seem to carry isnt just made up in their imagination, its a cultural thing that goes beyond the England set up and into the country itself.

    Yes, it takes courage to face fast, short bowling, but the dour determination to 'make the best of it' seems to be a factor of the mood surrounding the players and coaches as those men themselves. Lets lighten up! These guys are playing sport - for a living! Let them have some fun and relish the excitement and freedom that entails. We're not sending them to the trenches, its a game!

    The "play hard, have fun" culture Boof has created in Australia is what England lacks, lets find a way to send them out smiling and then see how they go.

  • cric on July 24, 2014, 23:05 GMT

    Good article about contrasting coaching styles but it is hard to say that it played any part in the final outcome. A good coach can lift the morale and enthuse his players with self-belief and purpose. He can offer advise to struggling players and give them hope and courage to bounce back. He can also act as a buffer/peacemaker to sort out any lingering tensions between players and unite them for a common cause. Darren Lehmann did all that to the Australian team and it worked.

    At the end of day, the collective will of 11 players on the ground decides the final result. Having a good coach just ticks another box in the required ingredients for success however does not guarantee that a team will perform well under all circumstances. You also need a good thinking captain and a group of skilled core senior players ready and willing to fight for the cause. Good coaches like good umpires should do their job efficiently and quietly behind the scenes instead of making news headlines.

  • Dummy4 on July 24, 2014, 22:02 GMT

    two ways of coaching teams both different and have their own positives but its the effect of the method tht is making the difference fr the teams.

  • Prahaan on July 24, 2014, 21:24 GMT

    Greetings MC. I loved your article. You have made some very worthy points. I am a diehard English Cricket Fan, from the USA. Out here, when a team picks a coach/coaching you will find that the coaching team to be comprised of seasoned leaders, each with impressive professional careers. They play a very visible and constructive role in developing a winning team (i.e. Phil Jackson, John Wooden, Bobby Knight). A player needs to be looking up to a coach for his professional excellence, as well as leadership skills. India is going about it the right way. They are prepared for this tour. They have an Englishmen coaching them, and assisting them acclimatize with English conditions. Although Fletcher cannot boast of an exemplary professional career, he definitely has a winning track record as a coach. England need a coach with an exceptional professional career, and a proven no nonsense leaders! He or she does not have to be English! Thank you and take care.

  • vivian on July 24, 2014, 19:52 GMT

    England team is a good team with talented players Moores may be a good coach but that is not the point here. With all the investment, hard work English players are not playing to their potential. Look at Bell, Cook, James, Stuart, Prior all are misfiring and and not producing or helping the captain. That's the issue with England they have good seniors where any team would be reluctant to drop and their not producing either. A good coach cannot win matches unless he is provided with a good team. Good generals only cannot win wars plain and simple. This England team is badly beaten and they have lost faith or their not believing anymore about victory and only thing constant for them is defeat. Their tired and want to finish things off and go home. You can see that when you watch last match between England and IND. In the last test between Sri Lanka the England fought back untill the last over but that spirit also gone now.

  • Dummy4 on July 24, 2014, 15:24 GMT

    One of the Easop's fables has a story demonstrating that a bundle of twigs, is infinitely stronger than the sum of the strength of all the twigs individually. But, alas, England is gathering either dead-wood or tender twigs, to somehow make up a bundle! It just doesn't work.

  • Muhammad on July 24, 2014, 13:47 GMT

    Unfortunately I would disagree with MC here. Fletcher's invisible style of coaching was heavily criticized being too defensive after the debacle of last English and Australian tour. His coaching has not changed but India performance and fortune has and for that the credit does not go to his bland defensive coaching rather to the brave and sensible selection of young player and investment in them. Whereas criticizing Moores' coaching style in his 2nd tenure is definitely premature. His main problem is his over reliance on burned out and out of form oldies and his unwillingness to take a risk with out of box selection of young players. Other than Root only 2 bright spots of the series so far are Ballance and Moin, the 2 young and brave selection. Till Moores keep persisting with the likes of Cook, Bell, Prior and Broad, the results will also remain the same.

  • Owen on July 24, 2014, 13:40 GMT

    @mtfb - then lets just carry on as we are shall we?!! Ridiculous.

    Too young? There have been 3 younger test match captains already this century.

    Too inexperienced? Hasn't everyone been saying that captains are born not made, therefore experience is irrelevant, as A. Cook and G. Smith have proven.

    Undermine his batting? Doesn't happen to everyone, ask Mathews. We won't know until we try, and I'd rather have Cook batting well with Root as captain, than Root batting well with Cook as captain.

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