The ironies- and there were many- would not have been lost on those English cricketers who played under Duncan Fletcher. Watching him on the balcony this week, inscrutable behind his sunglasses whilst everything was going wrong, was like stepping back in time.
‘Behind the Shades’ was the title of his autobiography written in the aftermath of his spell with England and it was a fitting one, since expressionless observation, no matter what the match situation, was his stock in trade. Few got to know the man behind those shades but his cricketing philosophies were clear enough and assuming that they have not changed in the years since he left the England dressing room, he would not have enjoyed what he watched during the first Test.
Indeed, India exhibited many of the flaws and characteristics that Fletcher was determined to stamp out and change during his hugely successful years as England coach.
Take the performance of the tail-enders, for example. Fletcher became England coach in 1999 and in the last Test before he took over, England put out possibly the worst tail in living memory against New Zealand: Andy Caddick, Alan Mullally, Ed Giddins and Phil Tufnell, who contributed 20 runs between them in the first innings and seven in the second, in a match lost by a relatively small margin.
England were known at that stage as a team that would be ‘six out, all out’ and Fletcher vowed to change that reputation. Accordingly, Tufnell was replaced by Ashley Giles following the next tour, never to reappear for England again, and the tail-enders were given as much batting time as the batsmen. Gradually things improved.
Fletcher always said that you can smell a team’s spirit from the way their tail-enders battle it out- or not. At Lord’s, India’s numbers 8-11 scored 17 runs in the first innings (three of them scored ducks) and 15 in the second. The way Harbhajan Singh, who can actually bat a little, threw the bat when his team were trying to save the game, suggested a lack of stomach for the fight. Compare that with England, who added 61 for the eighth wicket, allowing Andrew Strauss to declare on the second evening, and an unbeaten 162 for the seventh in the second.
As England coach, Fletcher believed strongly in a five-man attack and the value of all-rounders. His first Test in charge in Johannesburg saw Alec Stewart behind the stumps and Andrew Flintoff in the team, along with Gavin Hamilton, the Yorkshire all-rounder, in a five-man pace attack. A five-man attack was one of the principles that underpinned his crowning achievement during the Ashes win of 2005. After all, he used to say, what happens if you only have four bowlers and one breaks down?
What indeed. Zaheer Khan’s injury at Lord’s was a blow from which India never recovered. When Ishant Sharma finally found his legs in the second innings, sending England plummeting to 62-5, Zaheer’s presence might have made things interesting. As it was, he could only watch on the from the balcony, as he is likely to do at Trent Bridge, a ground that suited him four years ago when he took nine wickets in the match and would undoubtedly do so again.
Will India go for a ‘horses for courses’ selection such as Sri Sreesanth at Trent Bridge? Fletcher never believed in such selections as England’s coach, something he demonstrated during his first home Test match in charge, against Zimbabwe at Lord’s. The final choice on that occasion was between Giddins and a young Steve Harmison. Nasser Hussain wanted the swing of Giddins; Fletcher wanted Harmison. Giddins played and did well but, as Fletcher knew, his career was to be short-lived. Harmison, with his pace and bounce, was a bowler for all conditions.
In his autobiography, Fletcher says this of ‘horses for courses’ selections. ‘I never believed in that nonsense and it took me about another year to bring Hussain around to my line of thinking. I believe that you pick the bowlers whom you think are the best, and then they will learn to run on all courses.’ Praveen Kumar bowled well at Lord’s, a throwback to the days of old-fashioned skilful swing, but he does not look like a bowler who will flourish, say, at the Oval.
Improved fitness and better fielding- two things that go hand in hand- were things that Fletcher insisted on when he became England coach in 1999 and he will have looked upon the relative fitness levels, and fielding ability, between England and India last week with some discomfort. There is a passage in Fletcher’s autobiography, for example, about Tufnell’s fielding practice in South Africa in 1999, where he takes the spinner to task for failing to buy in to his demands. ‘It doesn’t matter who you are, you’ve got to put the work in,’ he says after running Tufnell to the point of exhaustion.
India’s senior players do not like fielding. Sachin Tendulkar had a virus at Lord’s but he didn’t take the field during Somerset’s second innings of the tour match at Taunton, either. In this regard, Fletcher will find a generational gap, between the younger brigade, typified by someone like Virat Kohli who is both fit and a good fielder (and not here), and the older players like Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, for whom the game is about batting interrupted by long pauses.
Will Fletcher insist on the senior Indian players buying into a more stringent fitness regime? That is exactly what happened on Michael Vaughan’s first tour in charge to Bangladesh, when between them Fletcher and Vaughan demanded higher fitness standards from everyone, including older players like Hussain and Graham
Fletcher wrote of that trip: ‘we introduced a buddy system for the fitness training, making sure each pair comprised of one conscientious player and one less enthusiastic trainee.’ An early pairing was Andrew Strauss and Flintoff, Fletcher writing that Strauss’s qualities became evident immediately as he refused to back off Flintoff, with the result that Flintoff asked for a new partner. ‘It was incredible to see how hard everyone was working and it made them proud to see how their body shapes were changing,’ he wrote.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all, in the wake of the opening Test, was how quickly India’s preparation became an issue. If there was one thing that irritated Fletcher more than anything during his England days, it was former players using inadequate preparation as a stick to beat him with. Of the whitewash in Australia, he wrote: ‘for years the press had been trying to hang me on this point: tour after tour using the word ‘undercooked’ and then having to shut up when we started the proper stuff well. But here they had their chance to harp on and on about it. And did they enjoy it.’
Clearly, India’s preparation before Lord’s was inadequate. A combination of too much cricket- the IPL cost them the services of Virender Sehwag, for example- and too little in English conditions, was catastrophic. None of this had anything to do with Fletcher, of course, since the itinerary was long in gestation before he became coach. But no doubt he will have to answer questions about it now. His answer may well be the one he gave in his book: ‘I did not want players tiring themselves out before the Test series had started; I preferred them slightly underdone as opposed to overdone.’
How far will Fletcher sit back and observe or will he jump in to assert his influence? A coach’s relationship with the captain, he always said, should be akin to that of the relationship between a chairman and chief-executive of a multi-national company, with the captain running the show, using the coach as a guide. This dynamic will be fascinating in the weeks to come if India do not improve.
Dragging England upwards from bottom of the world rankings to Ashes success in 2005 was the greatest achievement of this fine coach’s career. The assumption made by many when he took on the India job was that he had accepted a cushy number- a well-paid coach of a team that needed little coaching. The Lord’s Test suggested he has a more significant challenge on his hands.