Time for Fletcher to make visible impact
Enigma is a word loosely used in sport analysis. Duncan Fletcher the India coach, though, is one man on whom the word enigma won't be wasted. Fletcher the England coach was ruthless, result-oriented, modern, even before his time. He worked best with young batsmen, preferred pace, and didn't mind gamesmanship - remember how England riled Ricky Ponting with their substitute fielders during the 2005 Ashes? From what we know of him as the India coach, or rather India under him, for whatever reason youth hasn't been pushed for actively despite poor results - eight straight away defeats in Tests, accurate trundlers have been preferred to pace, and batsmen dismissed purely by their own fault have been called back.
The extent of Fletcher's role in all this is not known. We don't know if he has had the free rein he needs. He hardly interacts with anyone except his bosses and the players, and the players have always been full of praise for him without being able to articulate how exactly he helps. You knew Fletcher's role as a member of the support staff better when India last came to South Africa. No, he had nothing to do with India then. This was when Fletcher was the part-time batting consultant of South Africa. Back then, he would attend press conferences, talk about his role and about his players.
Therein might lay an advantage for Fletcher, a big chance to improve the overseas record of the India team under his watch: one win and eight losses outside Asia. Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis were part of the ODI squad that Fletcher worked with. That edge might not have been visible during the ODIs where India struggled to make an impression on pretty much the same set of batsmen - Quinton de Kock being the addition - but Fletcher's knowledge of South African cricket and conditions will still be a cane to this Indian team walking blind into the den, with negligible experience and little match time.
Other than this, Fletcher finally has a young side that he can mould. His expertise, it was said, was the main reason he was brought in as the coach in the first place, after Gary Kirsten didn't extend his contract soon after the World Cup win in 2011. At the start of his stint, Fletcher followed the Kirsten strategy of letting the senior players be, but with their games waning, it didn't work. Fletcher, though, managed to stay under the radar. Now, when he is back to what he was supposed to do - aid India in conditions he knows well, in England and South Africa, and facilitate the transition - Fletcher's role will be under more scrutiny.
The problem with scrutinising Fletcher's role, though, is the same: we don't exactly know how he works. What is clear, though, is that the players are impressed and singularly take the blame when the team fails to perform. "See, I think no failure can be pinpointed upon the support staff sitting back," R Ashwin said. "As players we have to accept the failure and say, 'Yes, we have failed as a group.' A person cannot go through the entire 11 players on the field, and what's going through their head and all that.
"Support staff can definitely facilitate you from behind. Support staff's role is always about creating a good environment. Having good facilities to practice and try and aid somebody who is going through a lean patch, and all that. On those regards he has never been short of what he has done. We had poor tours of Australia and England, but he has always been on the mark in terms of arranging practice and in terms of what guys want, going to them, talking to them. He has wanted to make a difference.
"There are two things: wanting to make a difference and actually creating a difference. [For] creating the difference the player also needs to play a role. He has always wanted to be the difference that a player wants. He has never been shy of going to talking to anybody, he has never been shy of going and offering a new suggestion for somebody to change his game. It's always up to the individual to take it or not. But I think for a failure the team has to accept the failure as a lot rather than saying the coach has not had a great record and all that. We have not had a great record."
That's a glowing endorsement at one level, but it doesn't really say much about Fletcher's role, other than facilitating training and ensuring good facilities. As a professional, Fletcher will see it as his failure, too, that he oversaw eight straight defeats away from home. He will be desperate to make sure it doesn't become 10 before 2013 is over.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo