Duncan Fletcher, decked out in unfamiliar colours, returns to the coaching scene
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Duncan Fletcher was playing golf with three friends in Cape Town a few months ago when play was held up on a particularly long and treacherous par-three. There had still been no movement in his coaching career a year after having left the England job although there had been "a couple of offers".
"The trouble is," he explained, "I just love the coaching part of the job. I don't mind if I never attend another meeting or [don't] have to do any administration ever again, but I really miss the actual coaching."
He said he didn't want a fancy title or a pile of responsibility, just a tracksuit, a bag of balls and willing students. He made it sound as though he wanted to be somebody's assistant, a position for which some might have regarded him as a little over-qualified. He accepted as much with a rueful smile.
Now, the perfect solution has presented itself thanks to the foresight, maturity and confidence of the incumbent South Africa coach, Mickey Arthur, who is sufficiently secure in his position and own ability to push for Fletcher's involvement on a consultancy basis. "It was my initiative and I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he will make us a better team," Arthur said. "You need to keep evolving and trying to stay fresh as a squad, and Duncan will add that extra dimension. As for feeling threatened by him, the idea is ridiculous. He doesn't want my job. He just wants to do what he does best, which is coach."
To understand exactly what it is that makes Fletcher's engine run, it is useful to speak to a man who has known him for over 20 years as friend, player and coach - former South Africa coach, Eric Simons. "Many coaches can identify the problem with a batsman or a bowler, but only a few can instinctively know how to help the player to fix it," Simons said. "Duncan's greatest pleasure in cricket is to see the lights come on in a player's eyes when the realisation hits home, when he not only knows what he's doing wrong but also how to fix it.
"He was never in it for the glory - he didn't want recognition or thanks, he just wanted to see players reach their potential and for his teams to win. That, to him, was the ultimate reward."
Fletcher is determined to stay out of the limelight, and requested that his contract with Cricket South Africa not include media duties, a request that Simons acknowledges may be more hopeful than practical. "If he's still involved in a year's time when England tour South Africa for a five-Test series, then he will have become part of the furniture, and the novelty will have worn off," Simons said, "But they will still want to speak to him because he'll always be associated with the Ashes, and he will always be one of England's most successful coaches.
"But to expect the Australian media to leave him alone when he arrives in Perth in a couple of weeks' time might be wishful thinking."
Fletcher's initial contract is for 50 days, and as Arthur said, "he didn't come cheap, but a man with his record and experience shouldn't come cheap". The first 20 days will take Fletcher to Perth whereupon he will return to South Africa before rejoining the squad for the Australian return tour next year.
Between South Africa and Hampshire, where he will also coach on a consultancy basis, Fletcher appears to have secured himself the very best assignments - coaching without hassle.
When the green finally cleared, he had systematically worked out a strategy that had not occurred to anybody else. The par-three was playing straight into a vicious Cape south-easter, but it was only 176 metres. Nonetheless, everybody was coming up short. Fletcher slowly removed his driver from the bag, to the mirth of his colleagues, gripped down the shaft and hit the ball to 10 feet.
"You do whatever it takes to get the job done," he said, smiling.
Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency