Meticulous Flower helps England bloom
One man was noticeable by his absence from the podium as England celebrated their feat of retaining the Ashes in Australia, but perhaps that's because he was already plotting his next step towards world domination. "He's a guy who prefers to lurk in the shadows a bit," said the captain Andrew Strauss of his friend, ally and fellow strategist Andy Flower. "He's not good at smiling for starters, so that would have been a bit of a hindrance."
Despite his preference for keeping a low profile, Flower is sure to be showered with plaudits in the coming weeks. There has been scarcely an aspect of England's Ashes campaign that has been anything less than meticulously thought through - from the identity of the combatants to the preparations for each of the Test matches, which included sneak previews of three of the five venues during England's warm-up period, as well as the decision to send the frontline bowlers to Brisbane a week early, to acclimatise for the most tropical venue of the tour.
But now, as the satisfaction of another job well done sinks in, England's thoughts are already drifting towards the second of their winter's twin peaks - the World Cup in the subcontinent, where their stated aim of becoming the No. 1 side in the world will be tested with the sort of dramatic format switch that the great Australian sides of the 1990s and 2000s used to take in their formidable strides.
As Strauss admitted in the immediate aftermath of victory, there's little time to sit and take stock of one's achievements in this game. He himself learnt that at first hand when part of his first great England team in 2005, which scaled one peak in regaining the Ashes in those emotional scenes at The Oval, only to tumble into the very first crevice on the subsequent tour to Pakistan.
"In the 18 months leading up to 2005 we had had a similar situation where all 11 guys were contributing all the time and that doesn't happen all that often, although you'd love it to," said Strauss. "When it does happen you tend to think, well, we can keep doing this forever, and that is the one hint of caution for us: there are going to be tough times ahead, we are not going to win by an innings every time we play and we have to keep striving to get better because if we don't other teams will pass us."
That is where Flower's groundwork comes into play. It was noticeable on the morning of the final day at Sydney that the ECB media department was working overtime with a flood of press releases - firstly to confirm that the bowling coach David Saker, another key appointment, had signed a three-year contract extension; then to announce that England's bowler of the series, James Anderson, had been awarded a ten-day break to spend time with his new-born daughter ahead of the rest of England's winter.
Such attention to detail may seem trivial, but when taken as a whole it is invaluable - and Strauss was quick to credit Flower for the meticulous nature of the tour. "The vast majority of the work he does is behind closed doors, both in planning, preparation, looking forward, getting practice right. He's not a guy for the limelight.
"The management team is always here an hour before we turn up, making sure practice is going to work as smoothly as possible," added Strauss. "He's not doing this job for accolades; he's doing it because he desperately wants England to improve. When he finally does finish he can look back and say 'I was part of something pretty special'."
Way back in the mists of time, when Kevin Pietersen instigated his infamous coup against Peter Moores, Flower was among the men whom he wished to throw out with the bathwater - precisely because Flower was not the sort of character to seek attention in his role, which at the time was to be loyal to Moores, the man who had appointed him, and quietly learn the coaching ropes after two decades as a top-level player. Pietersen overlooked his qualities, because he was not trying to make himself noticed.
However, since Flower's appointment as England's No. 1 - which happened, to all intents and purposes, at the precise moment that the team crashed to 51 all out in Jamaica - his expertise and quiet authority has captured the attention of the squad. After all, this is a man whose final act in international cricket was to look a murderous dictator in the eye and challenge him to change. After that black-armband protest against Robert Mugabe at the 2003 World Cup, perspective is automatically leant to any sporting achievement.
"He's been immense. He's been incredible," said Strauss. "Andy Flower is a guy we all respect a lot for what he's achieved and how he holds himself in the dressing room. Often you can't describe what he brings to the side, because it's just a multitude of little things. Little conversations he has with people, little thoughts he puts onto paper that he actually puts into practice. The way he works with the backroom staff is as good as I've seen in county and international cricket."
Flower took his undoubted ability as a batsman and wicketkeeper, and allied it to an unbreakable will to turn himself into the world's No. 1-ranked batsman, which was no mean feat for a player whose daily duty in the Zimbabwe side was to steel himself for yet another defeat - 34 in 63 Tests all told, despite his own world-class average of 51.54. That quest for self-improvement is a hallmark of the England squad that he has helped to create, and one of the men who buys into that the most is none other than the captain, Strauss.
"I think the more you do the job, the more you learn the way you interact with people off the pitch, because experience counts for a huge amount," he said of his own captaincy career. "I have been doing the job for a couple of years now and hopefully there is a couple left as well. In that sense I am excited about what we can achieve going forward. For the bowlers to bowl like they did, day-in day-out over five Tests is an exceptional effort. We have good depth and we will need it as the schedule is tough and we are going to get injuries.
"We've had an amazing two months since we got here but we've already said we want to improve, that's one of our team ethoses," said Alastair Cook, whose own partnership with Flower grew in stature during his spell as captain in Bangladesh, and whose tally of 766 runs was the outstanding performance of the Ashes.
"He won't let us have an easy time. He will demand that we get better and better. That will hold us in good stead," Cook added. "Whether I can achieve again what I've achieved here, it would be amazing. I honestly cannot believe what I've just done, and the team as well. I think we'll sit here and enjoy today then worry about tomorrow, tomorrow."
Flower, however, will worry about tomorrow today. That's what it takes to attain greatness.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.