Fletcher in spotlight as prospect of another whitewash looms


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Too early yet to think the unthinkable, but then again it has been that kind of summer. On those grounds, it is possible India could finish this tour without winning an international match.

There is a long way to go yet, or three matches at any rate, with seven having gone, six of which England have won. One was abandoned before it could follow the usual course, which is that the home side prevail because they are brimful of conviction and assume they can win from anywhere and the visitors are capable of mucking up any kind of advantage.

Perhaps today at The Oval, in the third of the NatWest Series, it could be India's chance at last. But then they had a sniff in two of the Test matches, seemed to be winning the Twenty20, had enough runs in the second one-dayer to sink a battleship. England won the lot.

This cannot have been what Duncan Fletcher had in mind last spring when he succeeded Gary Kirsten as coach of India, the world's top-ranked Test team and World Cup winners. On the day India pitched up in Taunton in July, Fletcher was as animated with the media as he is ever likely to be. "It does seem a bit strange to be back here but I've enjoyed working with India," he said. "We had a good tour in the West Indies and this will be an exciting series to be involved in." Unfortunately for Fletcher the excitement was all one way.

His public utterances since have been rare, though not quite non-existent. Greta Garbo just had the edge. Fletcher appeared at one press conference at the end of a day in the Test series but otherwise, as is his default option, has kept his feelings firmly away from any public forum.

Whatever he is saying to the players is not yet working either, otherwise they might not have lost so often. The plethora of injuries they have suffered and the heavy schedule of international matches India are expected to undertake – which has so debilitated them – are hardly his fault.

But then nothing much else will be either. Fletcher spent many pages of his memoir, Behind The Shades, describing several episodes over the course of his life when people came up to apologise to him after it had finally dawned on them that he was right after all.

There is probably not much more he could have done on this tour, though for a coach with his credentials and reputation, the recent record is inauspicious. He did great things with England over seven years but his last Test series in charge finished 5-0 against and his final campaign in the 2007 World Cup was wretched.

With India, he began with Test and one-day series wins in the West Indies by 1-0 and 3-2. Not many of the world's great coaches have a record showing that their teams have been whitewashed in two of their last three Test series and expect that their reputations will be intact.

Fletcher may consider either that he made a mistake taking on the job at 63, or much more likely, that the hard work starts now. England were in a mess when he took over in late 1999 and within a year he had transformed them.

He will recognise, as he did with England, that the team's attitude must be rebuilt. But with England he knew the players and the system, whereas he has hardly set foot in India since taking the job. New players have to be found, certainly for the Test matches (batsman Ajinkya Rahane looks as though he might fit the bill), the bowling resources have been mildly embarrassing.

It has been the usual education to watch him coach this summer. He looks at players practise for minutes without end, scrutinising, noticing, saying little, saving up his wisdom for later. If you were being picky, he does not quite seem the ace orchestrator of slip-catching that he used to be, though that observation might demand an apology later.

India's players seem at ease with him. He has series coming up at home against England (one-dayers only) and a tour to Australia starting in December. After that he and they will know whether they have done the right thing.

The itinerary for England's winter tour of the UAE, where they will play Pakistan, was released yesterday.

First Test (Dubai), begins January 17; Second Test (Abu Dhabi), January 25, Third Test (Dubai), February 3. ODI series: First ODI (Abu Dhabi – February 13), Second ODI (Abu Dhabi – February 15), Third ODI (Dubai – February 18), Fourth ODI (Dubai – February 21). Twenty20 series: First T20 (Dubai – February 23), Second T20 (Dubai – February 25), Third T20 (Abu Dhabi – February 27).

Shahzad accused

Ajmal Shahzad, the Yorkshire pace bowler who played for England during last winter's World Cup, is under investigation for allegedly scuffing a pitch with his boot during a recent Championship match.

Shahzad, who also earned a Test cap last year, was batting for his county against Warwickshire at Edgbaston last Saturday when an incident – which followed the fall of a wicket – was captured on video.

The England and Wales Cricket Board is understood to be examining the tape, although Shahzad is believed to have apologised. Yorkshire coach Martyn Moxon said: "I was made aware of the incident on the day and told the umpires would be making a report." David Lloyd

Oval details

England (possible): A N Cook (capt), C Kieswetter (wkt), I J L Trott, I R Bell, R S Bopara, B A Stokes, T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, J W Dernbach.

India (possible): M S Dhoni (capt & wkt), P A Patel, A M Rahane, R S Dravid, V Kohli, S K Raina, M Tiwary, A Mishra, P S Kumar, R V Kumar, M M Patel.

Umpires M Erasmus (SA) & N Llong (Eng).

Pitch report End-of-season pitch under lights yields many possibilities. Being The Oval, you might be desperate to win the toss. All four floodlit matches there have been won by the side batting first.

Weather Morning rain will clear quickly and be replaced with warm, sunny spells.

TV Sky Sports 1, HD1,12:30-9:30pm. Highlights: Channel 5, 12-12:55am

Odds England 4-7; India 11-8