Cricket: Fletcher the guru seeks a fine balance: Martin Johnson finds the new England cricket team manager approaching a tough task with a level head

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The Independent Online
THERE must have been shorter honeymoons on record, but not many. Keith Fletcher had barely made it down the church steps when he learned what he doubtless knew already. Namely, when it comes to cricket, an England selector is less likely to be brushing confetti off his lapel than a dollop of rotten egg.

Fletcher's first official media engagement as England's team manager involved reading out a list of winter tourists that was more significant for the one name not on it than the 16 who were. As a political move, the omission of David Gower was roughly on a par with the introduction of the poll tax, and national indignation was in no way diminished by the suspicion that England's new manager has allied himself to the preference for clones over class. Not so much a new broom, as a new broomhandle with old bristles; the leave the Rolls in the garage and bump start the Lada syndrome.

The excuse did not go down terribly well either, particularly as Fletcher appeared to be reversing all known theories about the ageing process - that the pushchair comes earlier in life than the bathchair. Gower, we were told, was too old for this winter's tour, but would not be too decrepit for this summer's Ashes series.

The immediate inference was that this apparently illogical statement was the inevitable consequence of attempting to smokescreen the real reasons for an illogical selection. Namely, that Gower was excluded more for his fly-by-night nature (or, on Australian tours, his fly-over-the- pitch nature) than on cricketing ability.

Fletcher, however, denies it. 'I can categorically say that David was not left out for any personality problem whatsoever. The selection was based purely on cricketing grounds, and it will be again next summer, which is why we said - and still do - that he has every chance of playing against Australia.

'There are positive aspects to selecting players such as Hick, Atherton and Fairbrother ahead of him, in that unless we give these guys a fair go, we are never going to find out how good they can be. Personally, I think all three can become top-class Test cricketers, but if they don't come through for some reason, then Gower has every chance of playing again next summer. It is definitely not the end of David's Test career.

'As far as the MCC protest goes, I respect their opinions. They think he should have gone. They should also respect my opinions, in that I don't think he should. They are now making the MCC fork out a lot of money for a meeting that could be far better spent on youth cricket, for example, and I think it's a bit sad, to be honest. I should think David finds it a bit sad, too. I know Lubo very well, and I personally don't think he wants this fuss.

'I'm well aware, too, of the depth of feeling about Jack Russell's omission, and that Jack was equally as unlucky as David. It was a very hard meeting, which took us six hours, but in the end there were only 16 places, and I personally regard Alec Stewart as a specialist wicketkeeper.

'The fact that we have not got a genuine all-rounder in the Ian Botham mode means than with Alec there as a batsman-wicketkeeper, we have so many more options. As for Richard Blakey, we need to see how he goes. Who knows? In a few years he could be our No 1 keeper. In the end, the selectors have to make decisions, and not every decision is going to suit everybody.'

Fletcher himself is no stranger to disappointment, or to thinking that Test selectors are a ball or two short of an over. The lowest point of his playing career was in 1982, and followed, ironically enough given the venue of his first tour as manager, his one term as England captain in India.

It was an unhappy trip, and he mirrored his frustrations with the umpiring and slow over-rates by flicking off a bail with his bat after being dismissed in Bangalore. Even so, Fletcher was still looking forward to leading the team again the following summer, enough to turn down a pounds 45,000 offer to captain the unsanctioned tour to South Africa led, in the end, by the current England skipper, Graham Gooch.

However, a short way into the English season, he received a phone call from the then chairman of selectors, Peter May, informing him that he had been replaced by Bob Willis. He drove away in his car to brood, reflecting (as it happens, accurately) that he would probably never play for his country again. It was a long time before he could bring himself to speak to May, who was his boyhood hero.

'I was very down at the time, and I've no doubt that players like David Gower and Jack Russell felt just as bad after missing out on India. It's a natural human reaction, but coping with disappointment is just as big a part of professional sport as enjoying the good times. I thought the selectors were wrong at the time they got rid of me, and I'm well aware that many people think that I got it wrong this time. It's all part of the game.'

OTHER things, however, have changed since the day he began playing. The cement was barely dry on the Berlin Wall when the 16-year-old Fletcher turned up at the Essex nets three decades ago, wearing the pair of winklepickers that, along with his shuffling gait, earned him his nickname of 'Gnome'.

Fletcher, incongruous though it seems now as he winds up weeks of intensive coaching and fitness work at Lilleshall, was never coached as a batsman, and remembers only too well what passed for preparation with the Essex side of the early 1960s.

'We turned up about an hour or so before the start, and sat around drinking tea. Fielding practice? Don't be daft.' He recalled, too, that in the first year of the Gillette Cup, Essex were knocked out by Lancashire, and celebrated because they had guaranteed themselves a few more days off.

However, he is rather closer to Micky Stewart's philosophy of preparation, and leaving nothing to chance, than many people might be aware. 'I am a definite believer in balance. Skill will always be the most important factor, but I also know that when you are fit, you can give of your best for longer periods.

'There are misconceptions about the current England set- up. When we are at Lilleshall, almost all our efforts are geared to honing skills. We only train physically for half an hour at the end of indoor nets.

'Neither is it all cold showers and long runs. The fitness work is all scientific, with specific reference to different individuals, including the right sort of diet. For the same reason as we started going away on A team tours, it is all a question of going about things in a professional way.'

Hence Fletcher's visit to South Africa to run his eye over India, an experience that has made him bullish about England's prospects this winter. 'They looked average, to be honest' he said, 'and they also don't appear to have the dangerous spinners they once had. Their leg spinner (Anil Kumble) is not in the same league as Pakistan's (Mushtaq Ahmed) was this summer.'

Fletcher, it would seem, does not share his predecessor's preference for never failing to engage the safety catch (and occasionally double bolting the door) before saying what he thinks. Otherwise, he does not plan to approach the job in a radically different way to Stewart, who, he says, has already made his life easier. 'Micky took a fair bit of unfair stick. He did a bloody good job, and I have inherited a lot of his hard work.'

He is no different from Stewart in his capacity to talk cricket into the small hours ('that's where you learn, from talking and listening. . .') but his life does not begin and end with cricket. Apart from cutting his umbilical cord with Essex, Fletcher's misgiving about the England job was how much time it would steal away from his shooting and fishing, or tending to his garden.

Fletcher has a legendary capacity for forgetting people's names ('er, old whatisname,' could just as easily be a reference to Gooch as a new boy) and some would say that he got off to a dodgy start by forgetting Gower's name.

However, what Fletcher never forgets are the strengths and weaknesses of individual opponents. The Gnome's other nickname is 'Guru', and, as Allan Border knows well enough from his time at Essex, after the last two Ashes debacles no one is better equipped to plot a way to defeat Australia next summer than Fletcher.

(Photograph omitted)