Cricket: Fletcher takes the rosy view

Stephen Fay hears the Essex coach defend the county's lowly position in the championship
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The Independent Online
WHEN THERE'S a crisis, it is axiomatic that Keith Fletcher, Essex's coach and guru, will be found decorating or gardening. Yesterday morning, before the rain came, he was gardening.

Fletcher should have been in Leicester, watching the last day of Essex's county match, but they had been humiliated, by an innings and 99 runs, before lunch on Friday - a result that confirms their position at the bottom of the County Championship. That's the crisis.

Fletcher doesn't exactly deny it: "The County Championship's been a total disaster and the Championship is the most important competition." But then he crucially revises the nature of it: he asserts that only Lancashire and Leicestershire have had a better season as a whole.

This is not what the members think, but when they "ruck on a bit" (his phrase) Fletcher reminds them that Essex beat Leicester earlier in the summer to win the Benson and Hedges Cup, and that Essex are second in the Sunday League. "What annoys me is when members ask whether the players care. They care very deeply. Some of them are nearly in tears at losing."

Morale becomes a problem. "It's a piece of piss if you're winning, not a problem. If you're losing, it's bloody hard work. You have to keep your unit together, but we're all friends and we do it on a friends basis."

Fletcher was sitting in the kitchen on his spacious house in north Essex; his face is fuller now, and there is mischief in his blue eyes, although our conversation was a bit like a dirge. Since Graham Gooch retired in the middle of last season, he said, Essex had not been able to a play a full-strength team.

They've had four captains; they have lost, for anything between one month and three, their top opening batsman (Paul Prichard) and bowler (Ashley Cowan); the overseas player (Stuart Law); their leading spinner (Peter Such) and the wicketkeeper (Robert Rollins). Fletcher has been forced to rely on Essex's young players, and four of them have been snatched to play for England's Under-19s. The only players to perform consistently are Mark Illot and Ronnie Irani - "his face doesn't fit; I don't know why," Fletcher says, "he's the best all-rounder in England."

The other problem is "crap wickets". Fletcher says he would rather play two three-day games a week than one four-day game on wickets that are not made to last. "You turn up at sides with decent seam attacks and the wickets are green. We went into four-day cricket for good wickets to produce Test players. What's the point of four-day cricket on crap pitches?"

Crap pitches harm promising batsmen: "Good ones are averaging less than 10. They nicked a couple that moved and they lose their confidence." The example at Essex is Darren Robinson, the opening batsmen who started the season with three one-day centuries and has been in decline ever since.

His solution is to hand to the visiting captain the choice of batting or fielding: that might produce more neutral wickets. "I made the suggestion 20 years ago, but it was pooh-poohed then." One reason why wickets don't last may be that counties save money when a game is over quickly.

You can't keep a good motivator down, however. As I got up to leave, Fletcher grinned and said: "We might not be quite strong enough to win the Championship next year. But you never know." In the meantime, back to the garden.