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It was September 2005. Duncan Fletcher was riding high after England's Ashes triumph. Journalists were showering him with praise, calling him England's greatest-ever coach, and government officials were suddenly willing to overrule protocol and rush through his UK citizenship. Here was a coach to be proud of, a man who had dragged English cricket out of the doldrums, bred confidence in his group of young, inexperienced players, and led them on a monumental trek to the summit of Everest - beating the indomitable Australian team in an Ashes series. He was a hero just as much as any of those players who lifted the urn.
Fast-forward to April 2007. The England team have been through the "Tour of Hell" in Australia, losing all five Test matches. After that, they were involved in another awful English World Cup campaign. No one came out of that six-month period with any real credit but, as is often the case in international sport, it was left to the coach to fall on his sword. Duncan Fletcher's seven-year reign with the England team was over. If you add to the mix some controversial comments he made in his autobiography about Andrew Flintoff, a few journalists, and some members of the ECB, the story looks very much one of a man whose legacy with England cricket is compromised.
To those who played under him, however, there will always be a legacy, regardless of whether they got on with him personally or not. His ideas became so much of a blueprint for England cricket over the time he was in charge that I defy any recent player to stand up and say he didn't learn anything off Duncan Fletcher, whether he played one Test or a hundred.
Marcus Trescothick, who made his debut in 2000, shortly after Fletcher took the helm, remembers his first impressions clearly. "The way he operated in a tough environment really struck me. He managed to bring players together. It was not easy because there were quite a few older, experienced players, and the cricket was lingering on from years before, but he managed to gel the team. Also, he made sure everyone knew where they stood. He had strong ideas, and everyone was clear what was expected of them."
His method was to be one taken from business, in which he had plenty of experience in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. He believed strongly in having a management group of senior players who would report problems to him and the captain, while feeding information back to team-mates from those in charge. At the same time he strongly believed in players learning to think for themselves, using him and other coaches more as consultants to their game, rather than being told what to do. He was particularly keen on analysis, but wasn't about to shove it down throats. It was very new and very different to a crop of players used to a coach occasionally telling them that their foot was getting too far across or their elbow wasn't high enough.
Fletcher had two advantages when he took over the side. Firstly, the England team were at a particularly low ebb, having just lost at home to New Zealand, and so the only way was up. Secondly, he was joined by a captain, Nasser Hussain, who had the drive and desire to change English cricket. Different in background and temperament, they both understood that the England team needed a revamp in personnel and management style.
The inherited issue of players finding a hostile environment on entering the dressing-room, owing to a culture in which every man was left to look after himself, was already being treated by the introduction of central contracts. Not only did the England coach have more control over players, but also they themselves began to feel part of the team. They were now England players, rather than players more easily affiliated with their counties. What Fletcher mainly did, however, was confront problems. Those who he felt did not buy into the team environment, or were unwilling to change their ways, found that they were surplus to requirements pretty quickly. In their place came the likes of Trescothick and Michael Vaughan. These were players who were picked out of county obscurity by a coach who believed they had the technique and temperament to succeed at the highest level.
More importantly they added to the team. Both brought bags of enthusiasm, were willing to train harder, and bought into the idea of taking the England team forward. Fletcher, meanwhile, was willing to stick his neck on the line for them. He was to be loyal to the death. In return he expected the absolute loyalty of those around him.
Any cricketer who came into contact with Fletcher could not help but realise that this coach was completely different from any they had experienced before. All batsmen, without exception, were shepherded into a dark room at some stage early in their England career, to listen to Fletcher's theories on playing spin, which involved a white-board, plenty of lines showing different angles of deliveries, and finally why the "forward press" worked. He was never one for telling a player to do something unless he explained it thoroughly first.
Geraint Jones remembers being struck by just how much thought went into Fletcher's coaching. "It was incredible how absorbed he was in the game. He never stopped thinking about it. He was never afraid to think outside the box, look at other sports, relate their methods back to cricket, and then push us to think in those terms as well."
|He knew my game better than anyone else. He worked out what made me tick very early, and was able to spot flaws in my technique that no other coach would even dream about telling meMarcus Trescothick on Fletcher|
Trescothick used Fletcher for batting advice more than most of his team-mates. "He knew my game better than anyone else. He worked out what made me tick very early, and was able to spot flaws in my technique that no other coach would even dream about telling me." None of this came by accident. Trescothick remembers a crisis moment during the Ashes tour of Australia in 2002-03. "I knew something was wrong but couldn't put a finger on it. I told Duncan this, and he went away to his room, accompanied by a computer, studied how I had been playing, looked at old footage and finally after a couple of days noticed a minor flaw that had crept in." His natural attention to detail made his insights unique.
Ashley Giles, another who really flourished under the Fletcher regime, echoes Trescothick's assessment: "He has huge technical knowledge, what he said always stuck with you." Ironically, though, he believes that Fletcher's greatest influence on the England bowlers came through taking their attention away from technique. "He challenged us to think about tactics and game- plans rather than being too preoccupied with technique. His role was to switch us on to competition mode." With a bowling coach of Troy Cooley's calibre alongside him, perhaps he didn't need to focus too much on the technical side of bowling, but it was vitally important for the bowling unit to be absolutely comfortable in their roles, and know what the bowling plans were for each batsman.
Giles, who has made the jump from player to coach himself, is determined to pass on much of the advice given to him. "I was very fortunate to play under Fletcher and Bob Woolmer. My coaching education has not come from Level 1, 2, 3 or 4, but from spending time with the best in the business. I have realised that much of the stuff that we took for granted hasn't spread down the system, and that makes my new job exciting."
Over the years that Duncan was in charge huge changes were made to the set-up in terms of support personnel. He believed strongly that a world-class team needed to have a world-class support network behind it. Doctors, analysts, bowling coaches, psychologists, fitness gurus, physios and masseurs travelled with us everywhere by the time of his departure. How much effort it took for him to get all those positions in place with his employers is anyone's guess, but I suspect that there were some battles fought which the players were not privy to.