Cricket: Essex man and ills of a nation

Derek Pringle says Keith Fletcher was blamed for problems beyond his control
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The Independent Online
AS CAPTAIN of Essex, Keith Fletcher would often go and lock himself in the lavatory when run chases got tight. Like a father watching one of his brood tread the boards for the first time in a school play, Fletch always felt far more nervous for those batting than he ever did for himself. Every so often a frantic knocking would be followed by a muffled demand for the latest score.

For many, these methods of coping with pressure would not only have appeared bizarre, but would have been unacceptable. To all those who played under Fletcher in the successful Essex teams of the Seventies and Eighties, it was the kind of quirky behaviour that strengthened the terms of endearment. Friend and foe looked upon him with a mixture of awe and affection.

Much has changed. As England team manager, he still commanded affection, but shorn of the paternal power he was accustomed to at Essex (i.e. always the team he wanted, something he did not have in Australia) and with the shy, almost apologetic approach he adopted to the media, most of the awe had gone. In truth, he always found it harder to watch from the sidelines than mix it out in the middle, his shrewdly analytical mind working best on its own or with a couple of trusted henchmen.

Fletcher, now 50, has been made the scapegoat for events he had little chance of changing, just as he was in 1982 when he lost the England captaincy after a dreary tour of India in which both sides adopted cynically slow over-rates.

England's captain, Mike Atherton, maintained that all he was looking for from a manager was to run an efficient practice, and be a positive influence around the dressing-room.

Being used to success at county level, Fletcher is too candid to have given players false succour when something stronger was required. His earthy honesty, describing poor performances as "crap", gave better copy to the press than it gave confidence to his players and it was felt over the past few months that he had begun to lose their respect.

As for running efficient practice, England were noticeably more sloppy and lethargic than their Australian counterparts in this department as well. It is sometimes difficult for a one-time dictator, as Fletcher was at Essex, to suddenly assume a diminished role and do it well.

While always stressing the importance of practice, Fletcher was never a natural at taking it. Even a close friend such as Graham Gooch eventually looked elsewhere, hiring Alan Lilley to help him out with his batting after Fletcher's throw-downs proved too erratic.

His appointment as team manager to succeed Micky Stewart at the end of 1992, was roundly welcomed. But it did not take long for detractors to start voicing concern, and his first tour in charge to India and Sri Lanka was a disaster, despite the belief that he and Gooch would form a redoubtable partnership.

After a poor home series against Australia and 3-1 loss to the West Indies in the Caribbean, Fletcher's increasingly fragile position was thought to have became more eroded following Raymond Illingworth's appointment as chairman of selectors a year ago.

At first, these fears seemed unfounded, but even the diffident Fletcher cannot have failed to notice that every time England did well, Illingworth seemed to elbow his way into the limelight. This was cruelly reversed when England played poorly and Fletcher had to justify his side's lamentable performances.

This was undoubtedly his biggest failing. Unless blessed with a silken tongue or an expert grounding in public relations, a coach has to stand or fall by the results of his team. Fletcher, with only five wins in 26 Tests, was light on both counts and last week the TCCB sacked him with two and a half years of his contract still to run.

In the meantime, and for a 12-month trial period, the TCCB have appointed Ray Illingworth to assume Fletcher's role, though he intends to ask coaches to run all the practices. His job is to motivate and bring about a confident and spirited dressing-room.

But, as any Australian player will tell you, when Bobby Simpson was both coach and selector, the dressing-room was full of tension, with players unwilling to discuss problems for fear of reprisals. With Illingworth effectively having two votes, the problem is multiplied, and the England dressing-room could be a haven for navel-gazers this summer. Although Atherton is likely to continue as captain, Illingworth's increased power could lead to some trans-Pennine bickering should things begin to wrong against the West Indies.

With players such as Gooch, John Emburey and Mike Gatting all expected to retire in the near future, speculation is rife as to who may ultimately get the manager's job. Patrick Whittingdale, the sponsor who has invested so much in England's preparation over the past five years, is known to favour Gooch, though Phil Neale, who was appointed Warwickshire's coach last Friday, has had two good tours as team manager of the England A side.

Whatever happens, the TCCB will not be offering a five-year tenure. It will cost them £100,000 to pay off Fletcher's contract, though that couldn't happen to a nicer bloke. Right now, Fletcher will probably be sitting on his chalet loo in the Swiss Alps, thinking how different things might have been had England won the toss in Perth and levelled the series. But Fletcher has always treated both sides of the coin, triumph and disaster, as twin impostors. He will not let this news spoil his skiing for long.