Duncan Fletcher: Master technician boosts power of England's machine

Brian Viner interviews Duncan Fletcher, the England cricket coach, who possesses a fine analytical mind as he has shown in his recent book on coaching. Yet he owes his success just as much to unscientific instincts
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The Independent Online

This is a typical Fletcher answer. He is as measured with his emotions as he is with everything else, indeed the most shocking revelation in his excellent book Ashes Regained: The Coach's Story, is that on the morning of Monday 12 September, after having a 7am breakfast alone in England's team hotel, and while walking back to his room considering the monumental significance of the day ahead, the final day of the fifth Test, he began to retch. Less surprising is his revelation that he was in bed that night by 10.30. Even his wife came back from the victory celebrations later than he did.

Fletcher, it is fair to say, wears his heart up his sleeve. And since reticence reputedly verging on the taciturn is not a quality that interviewers seek, I arrive at the Landmark Hotel in London, where he has agreed to give me an hour of his time a couple of days before setting off for Pakistan, feeling apprehensive. Even as I walk up the stairs to meet him I am thinking of the cricket analogies I might use when I write the piece: Fletcher as the obdurate batsman, me testing him with the sharp bouncer followed by the inswinging yorker, but unable to break through his masterful defence.

In fact, he is much chattier than expected. He doesn't play wildly across the line, exactly, but he gives full, considered answers to every question and once or twice there is even a glimmer of a crooked smile.

Has it occurred to him that successful coaches, rather like Prime Ministers, always fail in the end? Sir Clive Woodward and Sir Alex Ferguson are examples of men who find that there is only one way to go when they reach the mountain top. John Buchanan, the Australian cricket coach, is another whose reputation was stainless until Fletcher himself helped to tarnish it.

Does he worry that he, too, will fall prey to this seemingly immutable law of coaching? "No," he says. "I'm a believer that there can always be a first time. One day, someone will win a game of cricket getting six wickets in the last over. After all, who would have predicted a Test series like this? But it happened. So, do you say 'that's it, I'm quitting while I'm ahead'? Or do you carry on because you're enjoying it and you think you still have lots to offer, especially on the technical side?"

Fletcher, there is no doubt, is a wonderful cricket technician. Every England player has benefited from his fiercely analytical mind, not least Kevin Pietersen, who spilled all those catches in the summer, Fletcher realised, because in his enthusiasm he was walking in with the bowler, as all fielders are taught to do, but then not anchoring himself like a goalkeeper as the ball left the bat. The coach scrutinises video footage like art historians scrutinise great Rembrandts; no detail escapes him. Yet he owes his success just as much to unscientific instinct. He it was who recognised Test qualities in Marcus Trescothick and Steve Harmison when others were dismissing them as journeymen.

"The thing is to spot the guys who will not only grow into the international stage, but will then grow once they're on it," he says. "A lot of them have to play out of their skins just to get to that level, and then have nowhere to go. Character plays a big, big part. There are some great players who are technically not as sound as others but are mentally very strong. The first guy I noticed was [Michael] Vaughan. I'd seen him in Yorkshire, so I asked a few questions about him, and liked what I heard. Mentally strong, but also very sound technically." The same is not so of Trescothick, said to come from the concrete boot school of foot movement. But the coach has no worries. "To some degree they've all got technical problems. That's where the mental side comes in.

"Trescothick was the unsung hero this summer. He had to go in against a moving ball, when the bowlers were at their quickest, and he scored only a few runs less than Pietersen and [Andrew] Flintoff. He's got to 5,000 runs quicker than anyone in Test cricket." Fletcher treats me to the ghost of a grin. "So just imagine if his feet were correct." And Harmison? "With Harmison it was quite simple. He was the only guy in England who could bowl at 90mph. [Darren] Gough could do it if he steamed in and used lots of energy, but Harmison just turned his arm over with great rhythm, and that's a rare commodity. I tried to get him in earlier but was outvoted in committee."

However, Fletcher prevailed in committee over the selection of the wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, much to the reported displeasure of his fellow-selector Rod Marsh, who knows as much about wicketkeeping as any man alive and whose moustache, I imagine, positively bristled with authority as he advanced the claims of Chris Read.

"I just feel that the batter who can keep wicket should play," Fletcher says. "Because you've got to bat down to eight in Test cricket today, it's not seven any more. If you want to win three Tests out of five, you've got to make sure that eight, nine, 10 and 11 get you 100 runs every now and again.

"Which partnership won us the Ashes? It was Jones and Flintoff at Trent Bridge. I can't really talk about that Read scenario, but I know Geraint Jones plays a hell of a role for us. He's got character. You've got to pick guys of character." Almost as important as the C-word to Fletcher is the P-word: psychology.

When I tell him I interviewed John Buchanan before Trent Bridge, and that the Australian coach was proud of having directed his players to the part of the ground at Lord's on which the England team like to practise, just to gain a psychological advantage before the NatWest Challenge one-day match began, he very nearly laughs.

"He said that, did he? We just thought that was funny. It was a mind game that backfired on them. But it's true that it became a mental battle, of using anything to get an edge over the opposition. There were a lot of mind games that we prepared in advance, and others that we devised from day to day. But I don't want to divulge more, because we'll be playing them again."

In his book, Fletcher admits that he strongly disapproved when a couple of England players walked across to shake Ricky Ponting's hand after the Australian captain scored a century in the NatWest Challenge one-dayer at Lord's. "There was too much mateyness. I said 'look guys, walking across, just be blinking careful'. There's nothing wrong with complimenting them, but it's a fine line. You can be over-complimentary. If a guy gets 100, then well played, but we want his wicket next ball. There was a softening, and [Glenn] McGrath picked it up. So after that we changed. I don't encourage sledging, but, let's say there were certain attitudes we adopted." And were there also mouth games to go with the mind games? Even the former England captain Mike Atherton this week expressed sympathy for the Aussie assertion that the England bowlers might have used sugary saliva from sweets to increase reverse-swing, and admitted that England's 12th man some years ago was sent out for chewing-gum with just that intention, but returned with packs of Orbit, the sugar-free gum. "Maybe that's the difference between England now and England then: a decade ago we were even incompetent at bending the rules," Atherton wrote. He seemed to be suggesting that England are now rather good at bending the rules.

"We weren't using sweets," Fletcher says. "Accusations like that just make me laugh. It's desperation. The key was keeping the ball as dry as possible. We'd seen that in South Africa. And you have to give immense credit to [Simon] Jones and Flintoff. Reverse swing on its own is no good. You still have to put it in the right place."

Jones will be sorely missed in Pakistan, where they, too, know something about reverse swing. But Fletcher is confident that his cherished C-word will see England through, and that the Ashes will be consigned to history, albeit glorious history.

"My worry is more for the fringe supporters pulled into the game this summer. It's important to maintain their interest in cricket, but we'll be playing on low, slow wickets where you probably can't score at four an over and if you try you'll be knocked over for 150. The knowledgeable guy understands that, but the others might not."

For a couple of weeks now, Fletcher has been conceiving ways of getting the Pakistani batsmen out, as he did the Australians. The nature of Pakistan itself will help on that score, he says, because with few diversions there will be plenty of time to look at databases. He likes the word database almost as much as he likes the word character, and his modus operandi as a coach owes at least as much to his background in the IT industry as to his background as a cricketer (who first became a thorn in Antipodean flesh when scoring 69 not out and taking 4 for 42 in Zimbabwe's defeat of Australia during the 1983 World Cup).

"I apply lots of ideas from my business background. There was a Japanese system called Just In Time which rocked the world of manufacturing. It was a philosophy by which, if your machine broke down, you would not call someone to fix it but go on a course to fix it yourself. Basically, it's about giving responsibility, and that's what I've tried to do with the England players." Other sports also play a part in his methodology, he adds. "The biomechanics of the golf swing interest me a lot; how they make a base to hit the ball.

"And I have a real passion for rugby. I think it's a unique sport, the only ball game where you really build up to what you're trying to achieve. I would like to have played; to be a loose forward must be a magnificent feeling." When I took my 10-year-old son to Old Trafford for the last day of the third Test, I tell Fletcher, he was fascinated to see England's cricketers warming up by chucking a rugby ball around.

"Yes, I think that catching a rugby ball makes you a better catcher of a ball, whatever its shape. I would also like us to play football warming up, because to be a good sportsman you've got to play different sports, developing different skills. In football you run backwards; we don't practise that in cricket. That's also why squash is a good sport, running back, retrieving, working out the angles."

There can't be many angles that Fletcher hasn't worked out as he attempts to mastermind the next series victory. I wonder, does he empathise with another undemonstrative foreign coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, who is as pilloried as Fletcher is praised?

"I don't know him, I've never met him. Is it because he's foreign? I don't know. I think it's just about success."

Ashes Regained: The Coach's Story by Duncan Fletcher, is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99