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Keith Fletcher: 'We only had four or five Test players - the rest weren't good enough'

The former England batsman looks back on 60 years in the game, including trying times as England coach in the 1990s 

Ivo Tennant
Ivo Tennant
Fletcher talks to John Crawley in Melbourne on the 1994 Ashes tour. "We weren't the greatest side"  •  Getty Images

Fletcher talks to John Crawley in Melbourne on the 1994 Ashes tour. "We weren't the greatest side"  •  Getty Images

This springtime, Keith Fletcher, who turns 76 today, celebrates 60 years of continuous employment as a cricketer and coach for both county and country.
His longevity is remarkable. At the age of 16 he was on the Essex ground staff, wearing winkle-picker shoes and living on a pittance at Gants Hill, near the ground at Ilford. Now, he still runs his beloved county's Under-15s, having represented, captained and coached England along the way.
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Quite a life, and one he would choose all over again. He says there are "only three or four" individuals he has encountered whom he would not want inside his home in Newmarket, where Michael Holding and the racehorse trainer Sir Michael Stoute are friends and neighbours. Away from cricket he is to be found walking on the gallops, fishing, gardening, bird-watching, drinking wine, supporting Manchester United, and socialising with David Acfield, Dennis Amiss, Geoff Arnold, David Brown and plenty of other old cricketers when circumstances permit. He and his wife, Sue, go to Cyprus to visit Alan Knott - although he draws the line at Greek dancing. Fletcher is a highly contented old pro.
The premature loss of both the England captaincy, in 1982, and the position of England head coach, in 1995 after just two years and a record of 15 defeats and five victories, did not embitter him. There were circumstances beyond his control. The sides in the 1990s were arguably the weakest in English history. "You play the cards you are dealt. We weren't the greatest side," he admits. "There were only four or five genuine Test players - the rest were not good enough.
Illy even suggested in interviews he should replace me as coach, seeing nothing wrong with such behaviour. I came to realise that is merely an attitude of mind in Yorkshire
Fletcher on his relationship with Ray Illingworth
"When I was captain and coach, I was on my own. There was no sports psychologist - not that I'm a great believer in them - or bowling and batting coaches. You need someone to organise net sessions for you and go ahead to the grounds and see if the nets are prepared and to put them up. We are light years on from that and central contracts was the right way to go, but these days the set-up has gone too far because it stops people thinking for themselves. An approach between that of my time and now would be ideal.
"I got on very well with Mike Atherton, my captain. He is a proper person, totally trustworthy and a really good bloke. I'm delighted about the success he and Nasser Hussain have had as commentators. Nasser could have captained Essex for a lot longer than he did. He was a fiery bugger, for sure, with a steely streak, which he needed, and he had a cricket brain about him and got everything out of his ability. You can't ask for more."
If Fletcher has a regret now, it is not choosing Hussain ahead of Mark Ramprakash against West Indies in 1993-94. "Ramps technically was brilliant. You couldn't pick a fault with his technique. He was technically a far better player than Nasser, but Nasser wanted to succeed. That is not saying Ramps didn't, only that there had to be something going on between the ears. Thinking back, Nasser could have played in three Tests in the Caribbean."
There were others, Graeme Hick and Chris Lewis in particular, who did not excel as they were expected to do. "I started to get quite a bit out of Graeme. He could play but he needed people to believe in him. If he thought you wanted him in the side, he would play a lot better. Against fast bowling he couldn't get his hands out of way, they got caught up in the body and he was too square-on against the short ball coming up into his ribs. West Indies' fast bowlers were pretty good as well. It was difficult for him as he'd come into an England side without being an Englishman [having qualified after arriving from Zimbabwe]. Lewis was multi-talented but in some ways too nice. He could do it all, bowl, bat and field. We could have been talking about him as one of the top allrounders."
Off the field but not necessarily in the background was Ray Illingworth, omnipresent in Fletcher's career as his England colleague, captain and now chairman of selectors. It is fair to say that "the Yorkies", as Fletcher calls them, are not his favourite people - not since he was jeered on his Test debut at Headingley in 1968 for dropping difficult catches that the crowd felt their own Philip Sharpe would have held.
Illingworth, Geoff Boycott and Fred Trueman - one of the three players he would most like to watch again (Garry Sobers and Dennis Lillee being the others) - were "proper cricketers", which in Fletch-speak is the ultimate compliment. But they were not "proper people". Fletcher could not work out why Illingworth, having criticised him publicly, would then treat him as a long-lost friend whenever they met. "Illy even suggested in interviews he should replace me as coach, seeing nothing wrong with such behaviour. I came to realise that the scheming that went into his elevation in the game is merely an attitude of mind in Yorkshire."
There was no such scheming at Chelmsford. Doug Insole, Graham Gooch, the 1979 side who became champions for the first time in Essex's history, Acfield (a long-time dining companion), Alastair Cook and plenty of others are indeed "proper". Hussain tells, against himself, the amusing story of when he and Fletcher were watching the young Cook bat in a 2nd XI match. "Don't worry about your game, watch him," said the Essex guru, Fletcher. "He's going to be a superstar."
Ravi Bopara was more talented and could have become a better player, but Alastair [Cook] got everything out of his ability
"I don't think so," responded Hussain as the gawky left-hander struggled to get the ball off the square. Fletcher knew. He had coached Cook in the county's U-15s. "Ravi Bopara was more talented and could have become a better player, but Alastair got everything out of his ability. I used to do one-on-ones with him in the winter nets, throwing down a soft ball and saying, 'Hit the bloody thing to cow corner.' Far safer to hit the ball there than to extra cover. He was a public-school batter and I'd tell him he couldn't hit every ball to mid-off and mid-on because there would be fielders there.
"In fact, Alastair had a better technique when he was 20 than when he ended his Test career. Obviously as you get older you develop different habits, bad habits. When I told Goochie, by then Essex first-team coach, that he was ready to play, Graham said, 'Well if that's what you think, he'll play.'"
Other than a wish to watch Sobers once more, Fletcher generally does not constantly revisit the past. He harbours no resentment that Mike Denness and Mike Brearley led England ahead of him, even though he was patently a better batsman. "I didn't think about it and I wouldn't have gone behind their backs," he said. "I always thought like a captain and I would talk to Tony Greig, a very good friend, about tactics. But it would have been nice if I had been given the captaincy younger than when I was 37. By then your eyes go a little bit. For the four years I was at my peak, through to 36, I didn't play Test cricket."
Fletcher feels now that it was "mad" helmets did not come into the game earlier, although when they did, in 1978, he struggled to adjust to wearing a grille and could not sight the ball properly. "We never talked about head protection, not even after Ewen Chatfield nearly died in New Zealand in 1974-75. After being hit by Peter Lever he was saved only by Bernie Thomas, our physio, being on the ground. When we played against Lillee and Jeff Thomson in Australia that winter, the pitches were quick and they were also uneven and difficult to play on. But I never felt in danger. It was harder for Arnold and Derek Underwood - we should have thought more about those down the batting order."
He would have liked to have been better paid. "When I was in digs at Gants Hill I was on £4 a week and my rent was just under £3. When I started playing Test cricket, I was paid £100 a match. We were taken advantage of, although we didn't realise that. The administrators still wanted to run cricket as an amateur game and not pay people. I would certainly have joined World Series Cricket if I had been asked in 1977. I would have gone to South Africa with Gooch's party in 1982 had I not been England captain and had a benefit from Essex, which I had to run. I was offered nearly £50,000 to go and politics wouldn't have affected my thinking."
As it was, Peter May, his boyhood hero and the chairman of selectors, sacked him after just one, dull, series in India in 1981-82, seemingly without considering that Fletcher had remained loyal to his employers.
None of these occurrences dampened his enthusiasm for the game. When he eventually ceases to work as a coach, he will continue to go to Chelmsford to pass on his assessment of Essex cricketers. He will be in the committee room with Acfield or behind the arm in the press box, where he is held in great affection. If pressed, he will see in the mind's eye Trevor Bailey, who took him on the staff and who would drive him all the way to Headingley in third gear and give him his first-class debut in 1962. "On and off the pitch I've loved every minute of the last 60 years."