Cricket: Fletcher seeks to revive memories: Derek Pringle assesses the qualities of the England cricket team's father figure

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The Independent Online
IN THE past 18 months, Keith Fletcher has gone from running the Essex second XI to managing the England cricket team. This is the sort of elevation that super-achievers can only dream about, but Fletcher is not a happy man. England have lost 11 of their last 13 games, and as performances plumb new depths of ineptitude, criticism of the

manager mounts daily. But how culpable is Fletcher in this sorry mess?

As captain of Essex, Fletcher was most certainly a high achiever. Under him, the county won all the major trophies, at least once. By the time he retired in 1988, Essex had enjoyed the best years in their history. However, in his capacity as

manager-coach, first with the Essex second team and now with England, his touch seems to have deserted him, his win rate with both sides being less than 1 in 10.

Fletcher has a highly respected cricketing brain. There is no reason why it should have suddenly atrophied, even though his appalling memory is legendary. Once, as the England captain in India, he was forced to introduce his whole touring party to a local dignitary. Having got most of the way down the line he came to the reserve wicketkeeper, Jack Richards. Convinced he had seen him somewhere before, yet clearly unable to put a name to the face, Fletch had to be quick on his feet. 'Oh, this is, erm, Tiddler,' he said, and walked on.

On another occasion, as Essex took the field on the first morning of a match, he turned to me and demanded: 'What the hell are you doing here? You're bleedin' twelfthers. Get off.' Although it was early in my career and I was therefore quite unused to my captain's blunt charm, it was impossible to take the oversight personally. He presided over his team like a patriarch, and he commanded unquestioning respect and affection.

Although he could be harsh with his criticism, his praise was genuine and enthusiastic.

Fletcher also had a vulnerability that bordered on the farcical during the close finishes endemic to Essex's one-day performances of the early Eighties. If Essex were chasing runs and making a meal of things, as they inevitably did, and Fletch was already out, he would go and lock himself in the lavatory until the game was over. He seemed quite unable to cope with being a helpless bystander.

This may be why he is perceived to be less effective in his role as team manager. As a captain, he may not have known a player's name, but he certainly knew their game. Much of his success was based on hunches but, unless you are out on the field, it is difficult to get a feel for a situation. As such, he reckons captaining a side an easier lot than managing one.

In India last year, Fletcher, after three overseas tours with the England A team, finally took over the full England post vacated by Micky Stewart. His first job was to persuade Graham Gooch to tour and thereby renew a longstanding relationship that had begun at Essex some 20 years earlier, with Fletcher in the dominant role. What he had not reckoned on was the way their relationship had changed, and in particular the way in which the power ratio had been reversed since Gooch had become England captain.

In order to emerge from Fletcher's shadow at Essex, Gooch had done things differently. In particular, he introduced a tougher training regime as well as more intensive practice sessions. Once he became captain of England, he found Stewart an ally, but when Fletcher arrived, there was suddenly a familiar but dissenting voice.

Both felt confused. Gooch had been persuaded to tour against his better judgement and Fletcher, as the new boy, did not quite know how forceful to be in his vision. Although Fletcher would give almost anything to still have Gooch's commitment and class with the bat in the Caribbean, he was probably happy when a new captain was appointed. And Michael Atherton would have definitely been his choice.

For his part, Atherton thinks that there is only so much a team manager can contribute to play on the field. 'They are very useful to have around to run practice sessions and to discuss the way things are going during breaks in the match. Fletch has been helpful in that respect, but I wouldn't hold him responsible in any way for our failings on the field.'

Many think Fletcher's main problem lies in his brutal honesty with the media. Apart from regularly describing various shots and bowling spells as 'crap', he was candid enough before the Trinidad Test to admit that although the pitch

looked better than he had expected, he still would not want to chase 200 on it in the last innings. Despite his statement being based purely on cricketing instinct, many believed it to have undermined the team's confidence when faced with getting 194 in the fourth innings to win the match.

Despite being offered the job on a five-year contract, there is still a feeling that Fletcher's role is not clearly defined. With the appointment of Ray Illingworth as the chairman of selectors and his promise of a more 'hands-on approach' to selection, there is a danger that Fletcher may become superfluous.

Knowing the new chairman to be a practising Yorkshireman, Fletcher is phlegmatic: 'If Illy wants to get more involved, that's fine. I certainly wouldn't mind doing it as a dual role thing. He is a very good judge of a cricketer. But what we really need are specific coaches. I can deal with the batting and the way to approach certain situations in a game. But I can't really help fine tune someone's bowling action or tell a wicketkeeper what he might be doing wrong.'

Neither can he work miracles without quality players. Apart from not having Devon Malcolm and Angus Fraser in harness yet this series, the other seamers have been unable to do the kind of job they perform for their counties.

Where Fletcher does hold himself responsible in part is that as a county captain he largely pioneered the devaluation of the draw as a worthwhile result. He believed there was little point in drawing games and set about winning with an almost kamikaze zeal.

This caught on and results became increasingly contrived until the four-day format was brought in. The result of this is that not many of the current England team would have bothered to play for a draw with their counties and as such have lost the ability. Nowhere was this more visible than the slapdash manner in which both Nasser Hussain and Matthew Maynard went about their batting in Grenada. Draws in Test matches, as in chess, are holding results, positions from which you can regroup, undamaged. England would gain great strength from drawing one of their final two Tests in the Caribbean. But that is down to the players.