Duncan Fletcher, Zimbabwe’s first international captain, was born on September 27, 1948. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who lifted English cricket from what seemed like a bottomless pit over the past decade.
It was unfortunate that Duncan Andrew Gwynne Fletcher had chosen England as the country to rebuild; the British tabloid, in return, generally overlooked his contribution to the sport in the 2000s and preferred to brand him as “cranky”, “hard-nosed”, and “the man who never smiles”.
Forgotten was the 1990s when England was bashed by Fletcher’s own country that lay at the bottom of the pile; was stuck so deep in the quagmire so deep that their hands could not even touch the hallowed urn — let alone have a grip on it; was stranded in the doldrums that never seemed to move in any direction; and was forever in a preposterous pursuit of The Next Ian Botham.
It was those depths that Fletched had managed to lift England as one of the top sides of world cricket. He changed the mindset of the England side that lost to all and sundry: a new confidence was found, first in association with Nasser Hussain and then with Michael Vaughan. And England started to win Tests, then series, then even the Ashes.
Throughout his career Fletcher (and not the captains Hussain nor Vaughan) had been at the receiving end of ex-cricketers like Geoff Boycott, Sunil Gavaskar, Michael Atherton (who called him ‘paranoid’), and Angus Fraser (who called him ‘pathetic’). He had been ridiculed at for taking cricket too seriously, for being harsh on cricketers for turning up late, for snubbing the press, for being too rude.
There was one aspect, though, that will have his name etched in gold in the history of English cricket forever: he delivered.
A competent left-hand batsman who thrived under pressure, Fletcher had scored 4,095 runs at 23.67 from 111 First-Class matches with 20 fifties; he also picked up 215 wickets at 28.03 with five five-fors and a ten-for. He also led Zimbabwe in their first World Cup appearance in 1983 and did a commendable job.
Talking about his batting, Dave Houghton said: “Duncan [Fletcher] was really good under pressure. If you were 200 for three and he came in at five, he’d get nothing. But if you were 10 for three, he’d get 90. The other thing he had, like a lot of Zimbabweans after him, was the ability to smack the spinners.”
Of his bowling, Houghton’s opinions were “He [Fletcher] bowled medium-fast. Probably no more than 75 miles an hour — out-swingers and a very good off-cutter. He’d reluctantly take the ball, break the partnership, then let the other bowlers get back on with it.”
John Traicos mentioned: “His [Fletcher’s] big thing was the cutter. Also the blockhole. He could bowl right up there with great accuracy.” Jack Heron, however, had a slightly different view: “He [Fletcher] was a chucker! Eddie Barlow would tell you that.”
Fletcher was born in a family of sportspeople: his brother Allan William Ronald went on to play First-Class matches for Rhodesia, and more significantly, his sister Ann-Mary Gwynne Grant led the Zimbabwe women’s field hockey team to a gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics: it was Zimbabwe’s first gold medal at the Olympics.
After serving a year in the army, Fletcher made his First-Class debut for Rhodesia against an extremely strong Western Province at Bulawayo in the 1969-70 Currie Cup and was dismissed cheaply twice, falling to Eddie Barlow and Mike Procter. Two matches later he scored 89 against Eastern Province at St George’s Park.
The first five-for took some time to come: playing at Bulawayo against Transvaal, Fletcher picked up five for 48; a few days later he went a step better, routing Eastern Province at Bulawayo with six for 31 and five for 51; both the six for 31 and 11 for 82 remain his career-best performances. He finished the season with 33 wickets at 18.69 from nine matches. He won the South African Cricket Annual Cricketer of the Year award in 1975.
In 1977, he played for Rishton in the Lancashire with moderate success. He went back to England five years later on a short tour as the captain of Zimbabwe; he scored 56 not out in the match against Worcestershire at Grace Road, and in the last match of the tour — a 60-over match against Yorkshire at Sheffield — he pulled off a valiant performance of 53 and three for 30. It was an indication of what he would repeat next season.
Fletcher’s three for 34 against Bermuda at Grace Road in the ICC Trophy final was instrumental in making Zimbabwe qualify for the World Cup for the first time. He finished the tournament with 82 runs at 27.33 (he needed to bat only thrice) and six wickets at 24.50 and an economy rate of 3.76.
By this time Fletcher was the undisputed leader as well as the role-model of the emerging Zimbabweans. Traicos, the other senior cricketer in the side, later reminisced: “I think probably he [Fletcher] took on the role that Mike Procter had done for Rhodesia in the 1970s. He played it tough but he did everything himself that he expected of others.”
Even at this stage Fletcher laid a strong emphasis on fielding. He drafted in the South African rugby player Ian Robertson for fitness training sessions. He also got professional baseball pitchers to make it easier for the batsmen to handle pace.
The main issue was, however, funds. Whatever prize money the Rhodesians (now Zimbabweans) won it was usually donated to the Board. They also organised raffles and sold miscellaneous things to raise money. Some of them even worked as bouncers in casinos. It was hard, but in the Fletcher instilled an amazing sense of camaraderie among his team men.
The World Cup
Perhaps no cricketer has had an ODI debut more impressive than Fletcher’s: a look at the parameters may make the reader more aware of the volume of Fletcher’s performance:
- It was the country’s first ODI;
- It was in a World Cup;
- It was against Australia;
- He was the top-scorer for the side;
- He also took the most wickets for his side;
- He was the Man of the Match;
- He was also the captain of the side;
When Kim Hughes put Zimbabwe in at Trent Bridge he probably had no idea that the minnows would put up a performance this formidable. “We’ll find out what they’re [Zimbabwe] like when we get out there on the park,” he later confessed. He was also perhaps a bit complacent after Zimbabwe were reduced to 94 for five at lunch.
Coming out at six, Fletcher added 70 with Kevin Curran and an unbeaten 75 with Iain Butchart. He scored 69 in 84 balls with five fours, and helped Zimbabwe reach 239 for six in the stipulated 60 overs.
Fletcher put an end to the 60-run opening partnership when he had Graeme Wood caught behind; two runs later he removed Hughes, and though Kepler Wessels and David Hookes hung on grimly, the runs did not come and the asking rate crept up. Houghton later recalled: “We wanted to keep Kepler Wessels in because he was blocking the hell out of it at one end.”
Fletcher picked up the next couple of wickets too, removing Hookes and Graham Yallop in quick succession. Wessels was run out by an amazing direct throw from Heron shortly afterwards, and Australia eventually fell 13 runs short despite a whirlwind partnership at the end between Rodney Marsh and Rodney Hogg.
“We couldn’t believe it. These bloody minnows had had the best day in their sporting life and it was our worst,” were Hughes’ memories. Houghton, on the other hand, said: “Not only was there excitement, there was a sense of disbelief about what we’d just done.”
Fletcher and Zimbabwe did not do too badly for the rest of the tournament. They surrendered meekly to India at Grace Road and to West Indies at New Road, but Fletcher shone in the latter, scoring an 88-ball 71 not out with seven fours against Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel, and Winston Davis.
Zimbabwe put up a fight against Australia at Southampton as well, and had India down to 17 for five (then 77 for seven and 140 for eight) before Kapil Dev pulled off a once-in-a-lifetime performance; they were, however, severely beaten in their last match against West Indies at Edgbaston.
Fletcher finished the tournament with 191 runs at 47.75 and seven wickets at 31.57 and an economy rate of 4.40.
Fletcher quit cricket after the 1984-85 home series after three decent series against Young West Indies, Young India, and Young New Zealand. His last First-Class Match came for Western Province B against Eastern Province B at Cape Town: he scored four and 14 and went wicket-less.
Fletcher took up several Government jobs in succession before moving to the Treasury Company Bureau; his greatest claim to fame was to help devise the Zimbabwe’s vehicle number-plate system. What had eluded the minds of the ministry seemed to be an easy problem to him.
“The new format had to make it easier for witnesses of hit-and-run accidents to remember the number-plate. So we added an alpha-character to the end of the existing six-digit sequential system. The letters I, O and U were excluded, as they could be misidentified, leaving 23 letters to play with. The computer divided the six-digit number by 23. The ‘remainder’ would determine the letter; so a remainder of one would give you the letter A on the number-plate,” told Fletcher in an interview to The Observer.
Fletcher and his wife Marina had two children, Michael and Nicola, by now. They had a big extended family and life was good. However, the dark symptoms of the Robert Mugabe regime had just begun to surface: “Degrees in Zimbabwe were not worth the paper they were written on. British universities were far too expensive and, while South Africa had good universities, Zimbabweans could not take their money out of the country.”
Upon dislocating a shoulder, Fletcher went to the hospital and learnt that there was no sling. He decided to go out and buy one himself, only to learn that the hospital did not even have a safety-pin to attach the sling to. That turned out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
He left Zimbabwe for South Africa at 36 without a job, without a home, with his family, and R4,000 (approximately £2,000) in cash. He found a job as the coach of Western Province and guided them to the Currie Cup. He subsequently got an offer from Glamorgan: in his first season for them the County won the Championship after 28 seasons.
Coach of England
“If this setback results in an honest appraisal of the situation, then I would say it was a blessing in disguise, but there is more chance of Zimbabwe winning a final than English cricket taking the necessary hard decisions,” reacted Ian Chappell after England’s exit in the first round of World Cup 1999.
The selectors, however, were harsh for once: David Lloyd was replaced by Fletcher, who got the nod over Bob Woolmer, Dav Whatmore, and Jack Birkenshaw. He was the first person to assume the post without having played a Test, and also the first non-Englishman to do so.
Fletcher was baptised by fire as Hussain’s team visited South Africa shortly afterwards. On the first morning at New Wanderers Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock reduced England to two for four (not the other way round); England never recovered and lost by an innings.
The critics brought out their sharp knives; they pounced on Hussain and Fletcher after South Africa took the series with another innings victory in the fourth Test at Newlands. In the fifth Test at SuperSport Park (the Test that played a crucial role in the framing of Hansie Cronje) England managed to pull off an unlikely victory.
The wheel turns
The first victory came against Zimbabwe at Lord’s next season. This was followed by the “big one” — winning the Wisden Trophy after 31 years 3-1 after trailing in the series. Fletcher also hand-picked Marcus Trescothick from Championship cricket for both the NatWest Trophy and the Test series. The Somerset batsman went on to play 76 Tests and score 5,825 runs in six years of international cricket.
Trescothick later said: “The way he [Fletcher] 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.”
The Somerset batsman was all in awe of Fletcher even during the later parts of his career: “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.”
Fletcher also pulled the likes of Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff from the Championship and helped resurrect Craig White’s career. He emphasised on the concept of placing country over county. “You’ll find that a lot of the England batsmen will be quite happy to pull out of a county game if that means they can spend time with Fletcher. It will be much more productive,” said Hussain.
This was followed by the “big double”. Fletcher introduced a technique called ‘forward press’ to combat Saqlain Mushtaq, and after two drawn Tests they won a series in Pakistan after 39 years when Graham Thorpe and Graeme Hick helped chase down 176 under fading lights at Karachi.
England toured Sri Lanka next and were trounced by an innings at Galle; the Sri Lankan batsmen were too good against spin and Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya bowled really well. Hussain, however, turned things around at Kandy, and though they were 97 for five chasing 161 the lower middle-order saw them home.
Sri Lanka were in for a surprise at the third Test at Sinhalese Sports Club [SSC] where Ashley Giles and Darren Gough bowled them out for 81 in the second innings; England had issues chasing down 74 but eventually reached home with four wickets in hand.
England drew the home series against Pakistan 1-1 after some controversial umpiring from Eddie Nichols and David Shepherd. The Ashes, however, remained out of reach: Australia prevailed with a 4-1 victory, with England’s only consolation coming at Headingley where Mark Butcher pulled off an unlikely victory. Additionally England lost all matches of the NatWest Trophy at home.
They lost in India that winter by a 0-1 margin with a weak side. Fletcher’s strategy to use Giles to bowl a defensive line outside the leg-stump to Sachin Tendulkar drew a lot of criticism. Gavaskar, then on the International Cricket Council (ICC) panel, commented that the approach was “good for people suffering from insomnia”. The Little Master had also added: “Thank God it was a three-Test series and not a five-Test one, for Indian cricket would have lost a great number of spectators seeing the fare dished out.”
Fletcher later recalled the incident in Ashes Regained — the Coach’s Story: “First, it’s very important to realise that he [Gavaskar] is on the ICC panel and should have an unbiased opinion; and second, it is very sad when a good wine goes sour. I was very disappointed with Gavaskar.” This was particularly harsh coming from Fletcher, who had mentioned that he was a huge fan of Gavaskar’s during the great man’s playing days.
England managed to survive Nathan Astle’s savagery to draw the series in New Zealand. India managed to return home with a drawn series and England were beaten in the Ashes again by a 4-1 margin. After a dismal World Cup, England drew the home series against South Africa and lost in Sri Lanka. Things seemed to be going terribly wrong for Fletcher yet again when England visited West Indies in 2004 under Vaughan’s leadership.
England won by a convincing 3-0 margin. Steve Harmison blew away the hosts for 47 at Sabina Park with a spell of seven for 12; Harmison also picked up six more in the first innings at Queen’s Park Oval; and Graham Thorpe’s hundred decided the series at Kensington Oval. The last Test at St John’s was, however, drawn thanks to Brian Lara’s record-breaking 400 not out.
The momentum was set: New Zealand were beaten 3-0 and West Indies 4-0 in seven successive Tests. There was supposed to be a chasm in the line-up when Hussain retired with a hundred at Lord’s against New Zealand but England found a debutant in the same Test in Andrew Strauss. Fletcher was inducted into Britain’s Coaching Hall of Fame that winter.
A strong, buoyant England left for South Africa for the Basil D’Oliveria Trophy and began on an excellent note: some superlative batting from Strauss and some inspired bowling by Simon Jones helped England win the first Test at St George’s Park. South Africa won the third Test at Newlands to level the series.
England took a lead again with big hundreds from Trescothick and Strauss and a 12-wicket haul from Matthew Hoggard; they held on to a draw in the last Test at SuperSport Park after being 45 for four in the fourth innings, claiming the series 2-1. The subsequent ODI series marked the debut of Kevin Pietersen.
Reclaiming the Ashes
Not only had Australia held on to the Ashes till 1989, they had also won every contest convincingly (1997 was the only series that came close enough to be called a ‘contest’). Just before the series began Fletcher announced that he would replace Thorpe with Pietersen: Thorpe retired immediately.
The decision took some flak when Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne led Australia to a 239-run victory at Lord’s. For a while it seemed like déjà vu, and the knives were out. Fletcher, however, seemed to be a man with a mission; he knew that things would turn around.
The second Test at Edgbaston, however, began on a positive note as England piled up 407 on Day One; the epic finish triggered off a series that dreams are made of; and Ricky Ponting’s resolute 156 helped Australia draw the third Test at Old Trafford.
Australia did not get away at Old Trafford. Flintoff scored a hundred; Simon Jones made Australia follow-on; England were set a target of 129; and despite some impressive bowling from Warne and Brett Lee England ambled home with a three-wicket margin.
Pietersen then helped draw the fifth Test at The Oval. England reclaimed the Ashes after 16 years; Fletcher, along with the members of the England side, was honoured with an OBE. Fletcher was also awarded the John Bromley Medal for the Male Coach of the Year. He was also granted English citizenship the day after England reclaimed the Ashes.
Fletcher’s parents and all four grandparents were born in the United Kingdom; however, Fletched himself did not meet the condition that the applicant needed to stay in Britain for five years (including a maximum of 450 days outside the country and 90 in the past year); a loophole was acquired. The Home Secretary Charles Clarke had stepped in himself. Reclaiming the Ashes always comes with its benefits.
As it had happened with Trescothick before several other men turned into ardent fans of Fletcher at this phase. Geraint Jones recalled: “I remember how Jacques Rudolph kept getting out exactly as Fletcher predicted on tour in South Africa, and [Matthew] Hayden in the 2005 Ashes was very similar.”
Likewise, Andrew Strauss: “Prior to the 2005 Ashes series, [Duncan] Fletcher came up to me stating that he thought I needed to work on my method against Shane Warne. Being slightly pig-headed, I replied that rather than change anything before the series started I would prefer to see whether my technique worked first. Needless to say I was running back for advice and guidance two Tests into the series.”
A perfect example of Fletcher’s strategic skills came into appearance during the Test at Trent Bridge. Sneaking a way through the rulebook, Fletcher substituted a not-too-tired Simon Jones with Durham’s Gary Pratt, one of the best fielders in England. Pratt ran out Ponting with a direct throw — something that earned him a place in the open-top bus that carried the victorious side in London after the Ashes.
Final days at the helm
England lost the series in Pakistan 0-2 but surpassed all expectations in India: Vaughan was injured and Trescothick had flown home, which meant that England had to be led by Flintoff. Fletcher and Flintoff marshalled their young guns — mostly Alastair Cook and Monty Panesar — quite efficiently, and drew the series 1-1 coming from behind. Fletcher was also lauded for the unexpected selection of Shaun Udal, who played a key role in England’s win in the last Test at Mumbai.
Though Sri Lanka held England to a 1-1 draw in England, the hosts bounced back with a 3-0 home victory over Pakistan. Just before the Ashes at the end of the year Boycott created a stir by suggesting that Fletcher should resign as coach of England before the Ashes: “If you talk to people like John Wright and Bob Woolmer, successful coaches with a lot of international experience, they will tell you the job comes with a shelf-life.”
Australia took their revenge with a 5-0 whitewash. Fletcher blundered by picking Giles and Geraint Jones ahead of Panesar and Chris Read, both of whom were in very good form; by the time Panesar eventually returned to the side the Ashes had already been lost.
At the end of the Australian summer, however, England came back out of nowhere, trashing all their reputations for being an ordinary ODI side: they won four ODIs on the trot and came back strongly to claim the CB series, beating Australia 2-0 in the best-of-three finals.
A dismal show in the subsequent 2007 ICC World Cup, however, made the press ask for his head, especially by Fraser in The Independent. He resigned shortly afterwards.
Like Trescothick and Jones, several men who had played under Fletcher had been in awe of him. Strauss paid his homage in Wisden: “To those who played under him [Fletcher], 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.”
He also attributed his success against spin to Fletcher: “All batsmen, without exception, were shepherded into a dark room at some stage early in their England career, to listen to [Duncan] 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.”
Hussain was all in awe about Fletcher’s man-management skills: “The important thing is that they [the verbal doses] were always delivered behind closed doors, in a one-on-one situations, and he [Fletcher] never lost his temper. He’s definitely got a [José] Mourinho or [Alex] Ferguson mentality about backing your players in public, even when you’re worried about their form.”
Even Thorpe, whose career had ended when he was axed by Fletcher, had to admit that “his [Fletcher’s] public image was dour but there was a lot more to him than the public saw. He was always sensitive to how players were getting along as people.”
“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,” reminisced Geraint Jones.
“He has huge technical knowledge, what he said always stuck with you. 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,” mentioned Giles. Panesar wrote: “When it comes to bowling I normally trust one individual who I can always relate to, and I find Duncan Fletcher is really helpful with the valuable comments he comes out with.”
Fletcher briefly contemplated taking up a coaching career in rugby but then ended up signing up for a consultancy role with Hampshire in 2008. He was also a consultant for South Africa during their preparations for their successful Australia tour of 2008-09. He performed the same role for New Zealand in 2010-11.
In April 2011 he was preferred over Mohinder Amarnath, Stephen Fleming and Andy Flower as the coach of the Indian national team. As The Times of India mentioned, Fletcher was recommended by Gary Kirsten, whom Fletcher had replaced. The move found oppositions from Indian ex-cricketers.
Kapil Dev went to the extent of asking “Who is Duncan Fletcher?” He added: “I don’t remember much of him as a player. I would like to see [Venkatesh] Prasad and Robin [Singh] as coaches of the Indian team. Not because they are Indians but because they did a great job at the T20 World Cup in 2007.”
Perhaps there was some logic in that. Gavaskar, however, assumed a completely different tone: “Someone like [Mohinder] Amarnath would have been a better choice for the simple reason that the core of the Indian team today is from the Hindi-speaking belt. He would have got on brilliantly with this group as well as the seniors. It would have been a lot easier for Amarnath to understand and interact with the players.”
Gavaskar himself had recommended Gary Kirsten as India’s coach a few years back: the move had turned out to be an exemplary one, and India had performed commendably during the Kirsten-MS Dhoni combination despite the coach’s limited ability to speak Hindi.
He has had a mixed bag of records since he took up the job, but was given a one-year extension in March 2013 shortly after India defeated Australia 4-0 at home. The general results have ironically been the exact opposite of his tenure in England; though India has fallen from grace in Test cricket they have shot up to the number one slot in ODIs.
In Photos: Duncan Fletcher’s cricketing career
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)