By Jamie Alter
Duncan Andrew Gwynne Fletcher is no stranger to adversity. His first major cricketing achievement was to lead Zimbabwe to victory in their first international match - that too in a World Cup against Australia - on June 9, 1983 at Trent Bridge. On the day, Fletcher – a 34-year-old all-rounder - inspired an astonishing upset by resurrecting Zimbabwe from 94 for five to 239 for six and then grabbing four for 42.
As a captain and player, Fletcher was unable to replicate that high over the five more ODIs, but surely and steadily he build a reputation as a shrewd coach – winning trophies with Western Province and Glamorgan – and in 1999 became the first non-Test player and foreigner to coach England. Fletcher stepped into the role following England's first-round exit from the World Cup, and with his team at rock bottom in the ICC’s Test rankings.
Fletcher, 62, brings with him to India a reputation of being a players’ coach, a man able to sit down with a player and give him the lowdown without beating around the bush. He is not known as a hardliner, but that doesn’t mean he cannot lay down the law. His style is not laidback, and he is a stickler for the rules. His dedication to making England a very good fielding side yielded positive results, and his decision to pluck Marcus Trescothick - after remembering a storming innings of 167 for Somerset against Glamorgan – from county cricket and throw him into Test cricket as opener in the summer of 2000 proved a masterstroke and one of the reasons for England’s resurgence from bottom of the Test table to number three.
This new role is, without a doubt, Fletcher’s toughest assignment. Working with two former captains in the side, a selection panel which in itself is a cricketing story in India, and the world's biggest cricket media, will test him to the limit. That he steps into the role with India ranked the best Test side and having recently won the World Cup adds a whole new level of pressure on his aged shoulders. Fletcher’s tenure will surely coincide with putting a succession plan into place for Indian cricket, and how he handles this issue could prove to be crucial to whether he succeeds in the job.
A change of coach is always a period of adjusting. India need a man whose work ethics and whose knowledge is similar to Gary Kirsten so that the team seamlessly adjusts to the new man in and maintains its top position. Fletcher is similar to Kirsten in his work ethic, and his fierce loyalty to players he believes in could be instrumental as Indian cricket prepares for life without Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
Like Kirsten, Fletcher is obsessive about batting and is known to dissect techniques like few in the business. He is also rather low-profile, a trait which can only be an asset in a country like India. That Kirsten vouched for Fletcher’s credentials can only be a good thing, for Kirsten wanted nothing more than for Indian cricket to flourish.
The concern is that the players know too little of Fletcher, and that his proclivity to go to any lengths to seek an advantage over his opponents – such as resorting to negative lines against Tendulkar or using substitute fielders to keep his fast bowlers fresh – will ruffle too many feathers and attract criticism of the Indian set-up after the almost controversy-free tenure of Kirsten.
Those who have played under Fletchers swear to his pedigree. Nasser Hussain, whose role with Fletcher was instrumental in lifting England out of the doldrums, believes India have appointed an “amazing coach”. Michael Vaughan, with whom Fletcher reclaimed the Ashes so stirring in 2005, feels Fletcher is the best analytical cricket coach he ever worked with and that the new position will suit him perfectly. Former Australia opener and coach Geoff Marsh, now in charge of IPL franchise Pune Warriors India, believes India can do well under a man whose style he feels is “very much like Gary Kirsten”.
Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev have criticized the BCCI’s decision, saying they should have instead picked a former India player. Gavaskar’s reckoning is that 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, and thus it would have been easier for Amarnath to understand and interact with the players. That is an absurd and immature statement from a man believed to be such an influential person in Indian cricket.
That Gavaskar has a chip on his shoulder the size of Alaska is known to many, but even his by his anti-foreign standard this is a feeble argument considering that Kirsten was recommended by a panel that included Gavaskar. John Wright, under whose watch India began to win consistently abroad and made the final of the 2003 World Cup, didn’t speak a word of Hindi and it made no difference. Ditto for Kirsten, and it didn’t stop him from helping take India to No 1 in the Test rankings for the first time their entire history, and winning their first World Cup in 28 years.
Kapil’s public questioning of Fletcher’s ability as a player without even commenting on his coaching credibility is even more ludicrous. That two of India’s greatest cricketers can come out with senseless comments like these indicates just why the BCCI has looked outside of India for candidates for the toughest coaching job in cricket.
Fletchers’ appointment in 1999 didn’t go down well in all quarters, much as his recent appointment as coach of India hasn’t. But Fletcher won’t give two hoots about what people are saying. That’s just not his style.
(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine. He is the author of two books, The History of World Cup Cricket and Field of Dreams: The Story of the Dr. DY Patil Sports Stadium. His twitter feed is @jamie_alter)
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