It does seem the hands of both Duncan Fletcher (left) and Arsene Wenger are tied at the back by an invisible rope, the control of which lies with the respective teams’ overlords © Getty Images
By Jaideep Vaidya
Duncan Fletcher, coach of the Indian cricket team, and Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football club, have nothing in common if viewed from a superficial lens, apart from their silver manes and the fact that both are in their mid-sixties.
Fletcher is a short, chubby Zimbabwean, while the 1.91-metre tall Frenchman resembles a beanpole. Fletcher hardly ever utters a word in public and is as emotionless as a sports coach can possibly get. Wenger, on the other hand, is constantly seen patrolling the team’s technical area on the sidelines and arguing with the match officials. If an Indian player drops a lolly of a catch, Fletcher barely blinks, whereas if Arsenal concedes a poor goal, Wenger is often seen flinging water bottles on the ground in anger.
Compared specifically in terms of their personalities, Duncan Fletcher and Arsene Wenger are as different as chalk and cheese. However, if you compare the situation the two men currently find themselves in, you might observe a few similarities, which the two would love to discuss over a chilled one.
Fletcher has had a horrid 18 months in charge of India, to say the least. Appointed after Gary Kirsten’s resignation following India’s 2011 World Cup triumph, Fletcher evidently had big boots to fill. His first series in charge of the then number one in the world was at England – a team he had coached for eight long years and achieved much success with. Among the many highlights of his stint as England coach were overseas victories in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies and South Africa. The pinnacle was, of course, England winning The Ashes in 2005 for the first time in 18 years.
However, India got thumped in England 0-4 in the summer of 2011. “A Crying Shame“, exclaimed the Times of India in big bold lettering after the tour. It was their first whitewash in a Test series since losing 0-3 to Australia in 1999-00 and first series defeat – home or away – since losing 1-2 touring Sri Lanka in 2008. Then, in the Australian summer of 2011-12, India amazingly lost by the same margin to Michael Clarke’s not-so-exceptional team. But, rather startlingly, the two losses were considered a mere blip in India’s surge. When England arrived on Indian shores for the return trip in the winter of 2012, the hosts were expected to wipe the floor clean with the Englishmen. However, to the utter dismay of the home fans, India rather casually lost the series 1-2.
As MS Dhoni fielded vicious questions from snappy Indian journalists and took all the blame following the defeat, Fletcher hardly ever made an appearance take some load off the greying Indian captain. Dhoni, perhaps toeing the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) line, vehemently defended Fletcher saying it is wrong to blame the coach and that Fletcher “has got excellent technical knowledge about our batting“. In spite of that, India struggled to post 350 on the board against quality oppositions.
Arsene Wenger’s career graph has also followed a similar path. He is at the helm of an Arsenal side that is going through one of its leanest patches, with the club not having touched any silverware since lifting the FA Cup in 2005.
Wenger’s Arsenal career too had begun on a glorious note with the club winning the Premier League and FA Cup double in only his second season in charge. Under him, Arsenal got their hands on three Premier League titles and four FA Cups between 1998 and 2005, along with reaching the final of the prestigious Champions League in 2006.
However, Arsenal’s last few seasons have been extremely painful to witness and accept for their loyal fans. Apart from their trophy cabinet gathering cobwebs, many a star player has left the Emirates Stadium for greener pastures. And Wenger, citing financial prudence, has replaced them with players who are not even a shadow of the likes of Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie. Yet, Arsenal’s players have also always stood by their gaffer and defended him to the grave from the stinging English football press, much like Team India and Fletcher.
It does appear to this writer that Wenger and Fletcher are battling similar wars. They are battling their own glory days from the recent past. Their respective teams are going through extended dry patches and both sets of media and fans are getting increasingly vocal and agitated, calling for stringent action to be taken. If you look at the any of the duo’s contemporaries, you will realise that Fletcher and Wenger are clutching on long and thinning ropes. But why have the management of the two teams persisted with them for so long?
What is the inside story?
It is a “known” and accepted fact that a coach in the Indian cricketing setup does not actually hold the reins; he does not have a say in vital matters such as team selection. An Indian cricket coach, according to what the media feed the fans with, only has the job of working on players that are placed in front of him, hand-picked by the whims and fancies of the selectors and captain. If this is indeed true, you can’t really put the entire blame on Fletcher, can you? Is it his fault that he has been handed a bunch of unworthy ordinary chaps to chisel?
As for Wenger, ever since Arsenal made the shift from Highbury to the swanky new Emirates, it was a known fact that the purse strings would be tight for a few years. However, that still does not warrant not only your best players leaving the club, but also the supporters having to shell out exorbitant amounts for witnessing the team perform below par.
Like in Indian cricket, the question remains: How much of what goes on at Arsenal Football Club is actually in Wenger’s hands? There is a certain section of the fans who believe that Wenger has the money to spend on players, but refuses to dip into the transfer market due to his stubbornness. Now why would the manager of a once top football club, who has marshalled it through an entire season undefeated, do that? Is Arsene Wenger so stubborn that he will let a Robin van Persie, an inspiring captain and prolific goal-scorer who he shaped for years, leave to join the club’s arch-rivals Manchester United without reason?
Here’s another area of similarity: A few bullet points that will feature in Fletcher’s résumé are his eye for talent, his astuteness, and his vast cricketing knowledge. When he was England coach, Fletcher was very much involved in selection matters and was the man in charge. It was he who fished out players like Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan, James Anderson and Steve Harmison, to name a few, out of the deep blue sea into the England squad. The results were there to be seen. Is he getting a similar hold in India?
Former England captain Nasser Hussain, who worked extensively with Fletcher had told ESPNCricinfo in mid-2011: “The biggest difference is [that] in English cricket, he was the main man. If he said he was going to do something, we did it. Now if he gets back to India, it is how much they will let him do things off his own back. That will be the decision they will have to make and he will have to make: whether he takes on people in India or not.”
From the looks of it, he has not.
Wenger too is known for his sharp eye, both in the technical aspects of the game and scouting for youngsters. After single-handedly moulding the likes of Henry and van Persie into world beaters, he has tried his best in the last eight years to scoop out teenagers from Europe and shape them into Premier League-class footballers with the limited resources that he has at his disposal. If not for Wenger, Arsenal would probably be languishing in the bottom half of the table. Are the fans justified in calling for his head?
It does appear, if you look at it from such angles and are willing to buy the logic, that the hands of both Fletcher and Wenger are tied at the back by an invisible rope, the control of which lies with the respective teams’ overlords. Unless the powers that be actually allow the person they are paying millions to do their job, the drought is likely to extend many more summers.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber )