Fletcher all smiles (sort of) as he plots downfall of team he took to heights
New India coach in jovial but mischievious mood as he talks up Swann but highlights Strauss's weakness
He was charming, engaged and informative. And was that a hint of roguish mischief playing around his lips? Never was he tetchy and if he did not come in slapping backs, that was fine by everybody.
Duncan Fletcher, one of the world's great cricket coaches, renewed his acquaintance with England yesterday. He was in charge of the national team for more than six years until 2007, he made them a team fit for the 21st century, he guided them to a legendary Ashes win.
It was to end in tears on all sides following, in rapid succession, the cataclysmic surrender of the urn that took so long to regain and a wretched World Cup campaign. But after a gap of four years, Fletcher has returned to the role of full-time international coach.
To general astonishment, at the age of 63, he was appointed two months ago to lead India. In that capacity he will spend the next two months plotting the downfall of the team he once took to the heights. This is perhaps his greatest challenge. With England he had the players to coach and the media to tolerate (he did the former sterlingly for much of the time, barely saw the need to do the latter). But now he has to try to ensure the best team in the world stay there, while being scrutinised by millions upon millions of cricket-crazy supporters who view the team as part of the family.
When he bowled up at Taunton yesterday for the tour curtain-raiser, the famous jowls jowlier then ever, he was happy to concede that he assumed it was all over for him at the highest level. "To be honest I think I did," he said. "It's strange being back in this role. When I left England I didn't think I'd be back involved in this way. But after doing some consultancy for South Africa, New Zealand and Hampshire I got the bug again. Then this opportunity came up and it was one I couldn't turn down. It does seem a bit strange to be back here, but I've enjoyed working with India. We had a good tour in West Indies and this will be an exciting series to be involved in."
Fletcher's credentials as a technical coach have never been in doubt. He could spot a glitch in a batting method at 500 paces, probably with his back to the action. He is not quite as clinical about bowling but he is no slouch, and he is the best edger of practice slip catches in the business.
But, boy, could he grumble about those who did not quite see the world through his pair of sunglasses. There was some apprehension about how he might approach his inaugural tour press briefing (there may not be many more). He shared a platform with the Indian captain, MS Dhoni, who was his usual bland, non-committal self. Dhoni clearly saves it all for the team.
There are two huge issues for Fletcher. The first is to work with the team at hand – a legend like Sachin Tendulkar, for a start, with others such as Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman not far behind. But then they are nearer the end than the beginning, so Fletcher may have to bring through the next generation.
He thinks he can do both.
"It happened in the West Indies where I did a bit of work with Rahul," he said. "Every batsman needs help at times, look at the top golfers who lose their game and someone has to be there to help identify the reason. I also work with the young players to pass on knowledge and make sure they get experience as quickly as possible." As India went through their first full net session in the Taunton sunshine, Fletcher spent a long time watching Tendulkar bat. He will have spotted something on which the little master can improve. If anything, he was mildly reluctant to talk about England.
As Fletcher rightly pointed out, the team had changed fairly considerably over the last few years. But he was generous in his assessment of both Andrew Strauss, the captain who he overlooked in favour of Andrew Flintoff for the humiliation that turned out to be the 2006-07 Ashes, and of Andy Flower, his fellow Zimbabwean ("that makes me proud") and successor but one as England coach. "They've got England back on track and it's ideal that Andy has struck up a good relationship with Strauss."
Fletcher was always big on the coach-captain relationship. It was why he felt blessed to have got on so well with Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, both of whom would walk over hot coals to have a batting session with him but who occasionally despaired of his stubbornness. There was never the same chemistry with Flintoff, whose behaviour rattled him. Perhaps it is too early to tell how Fletcher and Dhoni will rub along, though Fletcher occasionally glanced at the captain yesterday with something approaching admiration.
During his time in charge, it was not only the press, who are perfectly capable of looking after themselves, that Fletcher sometimes annoyed. He would swiftly jettison those players who did not meet his demands. One of the most famous examples was Graeme Swann, now the number one spin bowler in the world.
"I think Swann has done really, really well," he said. "Sometimes, you've got to get out of your comfort zone and realise there is a big world out there and develop your game and that is what Swann has done. It is everything about him, he just appreciates what he's required to do on and off the field in the international arena, and you can see the way he holds himself, he is a very good cricketer now."
The mischief arrived when he talked of Strauss, his friend as well as his former opening bat. It has already been well chronicled that Strauss has his difficulties with left-arm pace and that Zaheer Khan is lying in wait. "From our point of view we have to be careful because there are other batsmen in that side we need to look at," said Fletcher. "The problem really lies with Straussy. If he feels he has a problem it's more a concern for him than us." Carefully sowing the seeds of doubt, you see. It will not all be hunky dory like yesterday, but it will be fun to see those Fletcher jowls in action again.
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