Cricket: Leadership with a quiet word: Scyld Berry profiles Keith Fletcher as he embarks on his first tour as the England cricket team manager

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AS A countryman himself, Keith Fletcher must know the pros and cons of the plant belladonna. In the right quantity it can be beneficial, in medicine or cosmetics. Too much of it, and belladonna lives up to its other name: deadly nightshade.

As the new manager of England's cricket team, Fletcher finds himself in an analogous position. When his first match in charge starts today at Faridabad, outside New Delhi, Fletcher will be there to offer his team those insights into opponents, conditions and techniques which make this game the most cerebral of physical sports. But if he is to justify the remarkable length of his contract - a full five years - he will have to assist the England captain in the right quantity, and no further.

The reasons that make this constraint essential are twofold. One is that any cricket manager, off the field, is bound to fail if he attempts the hands-on control of a captain. The second is a matter of personality. Fletcher, although born in Worcester in 1944, has always been a rural Essex man, from his receding hairline down to the feet that wore winkle-pickers when he went straight from school into the county side aged 17, and led to his nickname of 'The Gnome'. In county cricket his portfolio of achievements, as batsman and captain, illustrates how effective he can be when he feels at ease, at home. But on the wider, England stage he has not been - until now at any rate - the same secure man.

When asked by the TCCB for their recommendation, the England Test committee put forward no candidate except Fletcher to succeed Micky Stewart (a name like Bob Woolmer, Warwickshire's coach, could at least have been considered, even if Ray Illingworth and Geoff Boycott are too busy with the media). Such was the committee's confidence that their man could do for England what he has done for Essex. And Fletcher may, with luck, make England into the world champions: but the appointment was an act of faith, not guaranteed to succeed, because of the major qualification that has to be made.

At a domestic level, not even the sternest critic would deny Fletcher credit for his part in making Essex the happiest and most successful of the 18 first-class counties. The foundations were in place - a ground of their own at Chelmsford, a slimmed-down management structure - but the club had still not won a thing before 1979. Since then, while Fletcher has captained the 1st XI and then the 2nd, they have won six championships and five one-day trophies.

To win the county championship every other year has been an astounding feat, demanding as it did the will to win six days a week through the summer. It is in Essex's favour that they have played six games a season on the park grounds at Ilford, Colchester and Southend, where they reckon to win four or five of them on their 'result' pitches, leaving only half-a-dozen victories to be gained elsewhere. But they have still developed a formula which is beyond the capability of any other county, although Middlesex might share it if the pitches at Lord's were not so easy. Essex - and really Essex alone - have made three-day cricket work in the last decade.

Everything about the club is marked with Fletcher's shrewdness. Some counties fly off on pre-season tours to Spain or the West Indies, achieving a morale which flakes like a tan on returning to an English April. Essex prepare at home for the reality of cold days and soft, slow pitches; and Fletcher appreciates that it is the only time when 1st and 2nd XI players can get to know each other. When the season begins he is to be found sitting beside a player in the dressing-room before play or at an interval, confiding in squeaky tones, not lecturing publicly. According to the club's oldest pro, John Childs, 'Fletch is a great judge of character - he knows exactly how to motivate each player.' A few need stirring up; most need encouragement. One of The Gnome's ways is to bet a tailender a couple of quid that he cannot score 15 or 20 'for him'.

Yet Fletcher does not make the mistake of so many county cricketers in setting personal targets for a season, like 1,500 runs or 60 wickets. Instead, Essex's cricketers are set the target of winning each game, a vital distinction. It should be said that Essex under Fletcher did introduce one or two tactics into county cricket which were not then accepted practice. And Fletcher was also renowned for pressurising some opposing skippers in the hope that they would declare and set a tempting target. But it could all be put down to keenness.

However, the hallmark of Essex, and a key to Fletcher's personality, is that their players can afford to play selflessly because they feel secure. Contracts are not decided by amateur committee men who have never played themselves and go by the averages. Their financial provision is not quite the highest, but it does its best to minimise the uncertainties of the professional cricketer. Whether or not their marriages work, Essex players become men of substance, like Fletcher himself, with his country home and leisure pursuits of shooting and fishing.

IN AN international context, though, Fletcher has not been the same self-confident batsman or captain. He made a duck on his Test debut in 1968, missed three chances in the slips, and was booed by the Headingley crowd which wanted Phil Sharpe. It took him 20 Tests, almost as long as Mike Gatting, to settle down and make his first Test century. Only when he went to India 'as a last chance', as the selectors put it, did he, like Gatting, start to make the most of his exceptional talent and technique.

But even then he seldom batted as forthrightly for England as he did for Essex. He appeared careworn at best - at worst misanthropic, or just plain miserable - and was always able to make batting look impossible against bowling he would have smacked around Colchester or Chelmsford. He was more of a saver than a winner of Test matches. At the Oval in 1974, after Pakistan had totalled 600, Fletcher scored the slowest century ever made in England, in seven hours and 38 minutes.

As captain of England, too, he tended to retreat into his shell under pressure. Discarded after the Melbourne Centenary Test in favour of more exciting and carefree bloods like Derek Randall and David Gower (Fletcher's average against Australia was only 25), he was brought back to succeed Mike Brearley as leader of the 1981-82 tour to India and Sri Lanka. Much has been made of his tapping off the bails with his bat in Bangalore, but he did it so self-effacingly on his return towards the pavilion that it was not a major embarrassment. More disturbing was his reluctance to admit that he had done wrong and to write a letter of apology.

More embarrassing was the protest he led in the Calcutta Test when the umpires took the players off for bad light: Fletcher, who wanted to go on bowling, sat down in the middle with four of his team to make his disagreement obvious. More saddening was the negative state of mind which led England, 1-0 down in the series, to bowl 9.2 overs in one hour of the Madras Test. On returning home Fletcher was stripped of the captaincy because he had shown no capacity to stand back and above the battle.

The jury judging his effectiveness as the England A manager is still out. Again the defensiveness was apparent on his three tours, as England scored at 2.10 runs per over during their series in Zimbabwe, 2.11 in Sri Lanka and 2.4 in the West Indies; but then young county players had to learn how to bat all day. No England batsman can be said to have come through yet from his A tours (one 'Test' won, two lost, seven drawn), since Mike Atherton was a full Test cap before he went on his one tour. Of the bowlers, Ian Salisbury has come through, Dominic Cork gone backwards and Keith Medlycott disappeared. It was perhaps wise of Fletcher to bring in Geoff Arnold as a specialist coach.

Where the new manager will undoubtedly score is in his strategic planning. Whereas Stewart was a very good county player of eight Test appearances, Fletcher has played against every Test country except the two in southern Africa; and not only did he play more Test cricket - 59 matches, and 3,272 runs at an average of 39.90 - but also more recently. Given this record he will not have to exert his authority overtly as his predecessor felt obliged to do, which will allow him greater respect. In addition to his effect on strategy, Fletcher will analyse the opposition, while Graham Gooch focuses on his own players.

Come August next summer and it will be no surprise if a self-effacing, track-suited figure stands towards the back of the Oval balcony while Gooch acknowledges the applause. The question is what happens when Gooch retires. It is essential that the next captain should be a man whom Fletcher can advise but cannot dominate. For England's new team manager will be beneficial - provided that he never again attains a position where, if he should retreat into his shell, he dictates the mood of the whole party.

(Photograph omitted)