Andy Flower: The man with a plan to bring the Ashes home

He stumbled into the England coach's role – but now he is perfectly poised for success in Australia
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For Duncan Fletcher, it was a tour too far. But for Andy Flower, the chap who became England coach more by luck than judgement, this winter's trip around Australia could be a classic case of right man, right place and right time.

Some people will argue that Fletcher had run out of ideas and become too set in his ways by the time he led England Down Under four years ago. But while there may be some truth in those claims, what the Ashes-winning tactician of 2005 had really exhausted was his supply of luck. Or, at least, a fair share of what sporting folk like to call "rub of the green".

To have had any hope of retaining the urn that was prised from Australia's grasp after probably the best Test series of all time, England needed to field their strongest possible XI in 2006. Instead, they were without Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Simon Jones through either injury or illness – and an Australian side desperate for revenge and determined to see the likes of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath finish with a flourish had no intention of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

And that, give or take a woeful World Cup campaign during the spring of 2007, was just about it so far as Fletcher's generally successful reign was concerned. So enter another former Zimbabwe captain in the shape of Flower in a smooth transition? Not exactly.

Lest any of us have forgotten, the current state of play – with an apparently universally respected coach (Flower) and a highly regarded captain (Andrew Strauss) in harmonious partnership at the helm – was reached by accident rather than design. Not until Peter Moores and Kevin Pietersen had come a cropper in early 2009 did the England and Wales Cricket Board hit upon a leadership team capable of building on the earlier progress of Fletcher and Vaughan. But now, of course, comes the acid test – a tour of Australia.

Much has happened since 2006. For a start, Australia have not only come back to the pack (an inevitable consequence of losing Warne, McGrath, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden to retirement) but also actually started to slide down the field (now fifth in the Test rankings, one place behind this winter's visitors). That is their problem, though – what interests most of us over here is the good progress made by England. And the extent to which Flower has contributed to that improvement.

"Yes, it is important to have good coaches," says Flower when asked about the team behind the team. "But the players are the most important factor. They are the guys who go on the park and do the business, ultimately. They are our most precious resource – and you don't want coaches getting in the way so that, instead of enhancing strengths or enhancing performances, they actually affect players in the other direction.

"I think I made a few mistakes when I first came into the England scene, and instead of watching and observing and learning more about people and understanding them better, I voiced my opinion probably earlier than I should have done. I don't think that helped with my relationship with players initially."

Flower is talking about a time when he was one of Moores's assistants, a man relatively new to coaching and fresh from ending a highly successful playing career which had reached a peak, around 2000, when he was rated the world's No 1 Test batsman. No wonder, perhaps, that he could not wait to pass on ideas, tips and personal experiences – and hardly surprising if, around that time, one or two members of the England team found him in their ear a bit too often.

But if Pietersen, for example, needed convincing that Flower was the right person for the top job then the 2009 tour of the West Indies did the trick. By the end of that campaign it was pretty much impossible to find a dissenting voice, a fact that the ECB hierarchy took into account when making a temporary appointment permanent.

So what are the strengths of a man who averaged 51 across 63 Tests, kept wicket reliably, encouraged a minnow-like team to produce some giant-killing performances and, you may recall, was brave enough to wear a black armband during a 1999 World Cup match in Zimbabwe, and under the nose of dictator Robert Mugabe, to draw attention to the death of democracy in his country? Enough said, perhaps.

So the place is right for a momentous victory this winter (no better place for a cricketer to win than in Australia, really), the man (in 42-year-old Flower) has proved himself capable of filling Fletcher's shoes and the time could not be much better (it is nearly a quarter of a century since England last enjoyed a happy Ashes experience Down Under and the old enemy are currently in decline). All that is left – apart from actually performing, of course – is to make sure none of the mistakes of 2006-07 are repeated. Publicly, at least, you will not find Flower nodding in agreement with that last point.

"I would rather not make comparisons to things that might not have happened well on the last tour," he says. "This tour has very little to do with it – it is four years on and it is a different set of people involved, on both sides. Of course we can learn things from the past but I don't think it's my place here to go into any mistakes that were made in the past."

Clearly, though, lessons have been learned from 2006-07. For example, this time, England will have three proper, 11-a-side warm-up matches before the first Test (unlike four years ago when the team were under-prepared for the series opener in Brisbane). And family visits will be limited to a five-week period in December and early January, by which time the series will be more than half-way through.

Having competitive, first-class fixtures (rather than the glorified practice games that Fletcher sanctioned) will have gone down well with most, if not all, of the players. But Flower may have had to do some hard talking to convince a few squad members that this tour should not adopt the open-house policy of 2006, which allowed wives, girlfriends and families to pop in pretty much as they pleased.

"It is a tricky thing for both players and management," admits the coach. "If you have a group of almost 30 people you will always get differing opinions, and you can't please everyone all of the time, but once the intent of the decision was explained to the players I think they accepted that and respected it."

So there we are, then. England travel to Australia with plans in place, confidence buoyed by five wins and a draw from their last six Test series, and excited by the possibility of ending 24 years of hurt. What could possibly go wrong? Apart from buckling under the weight of expectation, that is.

"It is important for our guys to keep it all in perspective," says Flower. "To beat Australia we will have to be at our best, and we are willing to take that on and confront it fully. But I do ask them to keep it in perspective because I think it is the best way to go about this job. If you don't, you can build it up into something bigger than it is."

Andy Flower was speaking as part of the Sky Sports ECB coach education programme

Flower's England CV

Test match record: Played 19, Won 12, Lost 3, Drawn 4

Notable achievements: Regaining the Ashes 2009

One-day record: Played 37, Won 20, Lost 14, No result/Abandoned 3

Notable achievements: 3-2 series win vs Australia 2010

Twenty20 record: Played 20, Won 11, Lost 6, No Result/Abandoned 3

Notable achievements: 2010 ICC World Twenty20 winners