Fletcher facing his own creation

NatWest Series: South Africa's fortunes this summer are in the hands of a man moulded by the England coach
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The Independent Online

If South Africa win the whole shooting match this summer, Duncan Fletcher, England's coach, will have much to answer for. This will have nothing to do with the usual knee-jerk reaction of sports fans anxious to blame somebody in defeat and finding an eminently reasonable target in the chap responsible for strategy and motivation.

The admonishing fingers will be pointed in the direction of Eric Simons, the coach of South Africa. Had it not been for Fletcher, then Simons would never have been here to guide and advise the summer's third tourists. The NatWest Series and the five Tests which follow will show what rubbed off.

"Maybe this isn't the time to be saying it but I didn't set out to become coach of South Africa," said Simons. "I would not have become a coach if I hadn't played under Duncan. He brought a new style and attitude to it that I really enjoyed as a player. I have always had a business in South Africa and the timing was such that I got involved."

Simons was a veteran bowler with Western Province when Fletcher brought a new dimension to his cricket. He had always been a player who thought about the mechanics of the game because he had to work so hard to make the most of his talent. Fletcher ensured that he broadened his understanding.

"It was by talking about the game, not allowing the game to drift, analysing the game before and after matches. Just making people think outside your comfort zone. He builds up a relationship with you. People who don't know him see a very tough exterior but he forces you to think as a cricketer. Having worked with him had a profound effect on the way my life took."

Around four minutes with the engaging and candid Simons is enough to learn more about Fletcher than the England coach himself has given away in four years in the job. "Oh, he can be abrupt," said Simons, laughing, almost giggling with affection in describing his mentor. "Without ever clenching his fist he demanded the best of you and you felt you owed it. You felt you needed to apologise to him when you didn't do well not because he demanded it but because you felt you owed it to him, if that makes sense."

There is more to Eric Simons than Duncan Fletcher, however. There is more to him than cricket. The last public image of him, one that will endure down the years, is of his appearance on Shaun Pollock's right in a committee room at Kingsmead, Durban late at night on 3 March. South Africa had just been eliminated from the World Cup in excruciating circumstances, having tied with Sri Lanka under the Duckworth Lewis Method after rain had curtailed the match. It was only a game of cricket but somehow it represented much more in a nation still trying to rediscover itself.

There had been a weight of expectation on the team to win the tournament in their own country that was expressed not only in newspapers and on television but in every conversation you had with a South African. Over six years of planning it had become their destiny. Simons knew it, the team knew it. "It was something we were desperately concerned about," he said. "We talked about it, but we never had fun." They could not shake the monkey from their backs, and although they were at times unlucky, the burden showed in their performances.

That night in Durban, Pollock sat and tried to explain their failure with a hollowness in his eyes. He was to pay for defeat with his job. There was not much more animation in Simons' bleak face. He survived, although he wondered if the axe would fall.

Such reversals are part of sport and Simons recognises it. He is willing to accept culpability if he got the strategy wrong ("we thought it best just to play the game and not worry about the rain") but it will never quite be behind him. "If I'm still in charge by the time of the next World Cup it will be entirely because of that match." He has something to avenge.

Simons was a proficient bowler who batted a bit for Western Province and, in 23 one-day appearances, for South Africa. By his own admission it took work and a knowledge of his game to get that far. It is a trait, partly because of Fletcher, that he tries to encourage in his players.

"I'm not a clone of Duncan, that's for sure," he said. "I have my own ideas. There are certain things that Duncan does that I don't agree with." Oh, and what they would be? Simons wasn't saying. "He might change, let him keep going with them."

In general, cricketers from other countries are more rounded than their English counterparts. Simons is keen for his charges to expand their horizons beyond bat and ball. When he was still a player, Simons, a commerce graduate, ran his own civil engineering business. He has now sold it but still intends to introduce study groups to the South African squad. Cape Town University is trying to design a syllabus.

"That to me makes a more successful cricketer, having other interests in life," said Simons. "It helps you to focus, to switch on and off. At this level you might not have time for another job but I think that too many of our young players, after a night game for instance, just spend their time the next day watching television or a movie. When I was at WP I wanted us to set up a business in the team."

He wants to win at cricket, sure. But he sees beyond that. "If you meet somebody the good thing is five years down the line or whenever you can say how that person affected you and your life. I like cricket, I like inter-reacting with people."

As for the cricket, he suspects that South Africa start as underdogs this summer. But he promises that they are improving, that their top six could become a resplendent batting order. It is the first time he and Fletcher have met as rival coaches.

"It will be competitive," he said. "Sometimes the most competitive games are against your friends and that's the way it will be. We carry a little bit more experience, despite both sides being in transition. If we win three or four in row then we'll be in charge I think."

Will his knowledge of Fletcher's coaching have any bearing? "It must have. For instance a simple thing, I know he likes to have his fine leg and third man fine. Some of these things will matter, some won't. I think Duncan made me a better player and I hope I made him a better person." And he laughed, which you don't see Fletch do too often in public.