Fletcher unflinching as the firing party take aim

Scalp-hunters' search for a scapegoat focuses on one man
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With the Ashes all but gone, Duncan Fletcher managed a joke. It was not a side-splitting, falling over type of joke, but you had to smile. And then it made you think. More Dave Allen than Groucho Marx.

Fletcher is being lined up to take the fall for England's performances in the 2006-07 Ashes. The critics have already sharpened their pencils and turned on their laptops with the spell-check on "spleen".

He has been in England and around the English team long enough to know what is coming, though he may not be prepared for the force of the vituperation. The chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, David Morgan, was re-elected unopposed last week for a further period of two years. He may need to use this show of unqualified support to back the coach.

Fletcher was asked if the criticism bothered him. "No, not at all," he said. "When I first took the job we went to South Africa and we were one run for four wickets or something in our first innings; I was criticised. It hasn't stopped since then." He grinned. Just a little, but it was definite.

There were two things amiss with that statement. England were actually 2 for 4 at the Wanderers seven years ago - with Michael Vaughan a debutant then and the most missed man on tour now at the crease - when Fletcher was in charge of an England team for the first time.

The other thing wrong was the blanket denial that he is unbothered by criticism. He is irked all right. Enough people who have his ear and care about him have said as much in the past few weeks as the vultures have circled.

Fletcher cannot escape censure for what has happened to England in Australia this winter. Nor has he helped himself by refusing to admit any shortcomings, wrong turnings or dead ends. It has long been his worst fault as England's head coach.

He seems too ready to justify himself when it is pretty obvious that he and his camp followers have got things wrong. A little humility doesn't half help in crisis. Actually, he has been little criticised over the years because his results have been largely good.

It is again stating the obvious to say that Fletcher has made mistakes this winter. Some can be laid collectively at the door of the selectors. Too many players have been brought on this tour who are not match-fit. Andrew Flintoff is the most glaring example, and yet they still made him captain on the strength of previous talismanic qualities. He should not have been captain. Simple as that.

Ashley Giles had not played a game of cricket of any kind for a year, Stephen Harmison, a rhythm bowler if ever there was one, had only the blues because he did not have the opportun-ity to bowl sufficient overs after being injured at the fag end of the English season.

And then Fletcher was undone by faith in those who had done well for him in the past. Loyalty is an admirable quality, but in displaying it so abundantly Fletcher forgot to realise that sports teams must evolve, other-wise they get left behind. They get beaten.

He played Giles and Geraint Jones and in doing so he left himself open to merciless criticism. Giles was preferred to Monty Panesar, the improbable new poster boy of English cricket. After that, England had to win or else.

Sometimes, it has been difficult to tell what England's tactics have been and who was laying them down. Sometimes it has been possible to wonder if Fletcher at 58 was a little old to influence the younger members of the party.

If Fletcher has not helped himself at times - though he has been more candid and less prickly this winter than ever before - he has not been helped by the attentions of others.

Many of his critics tend to be TV pundits who turn up on the day of a Test or have columns in which controversy is prescribed not proscribed. In criticising Fletcher they attempt no sober analysis, and one thing leads to another.

He would like to be omniscient as coach, to be the sole selector. It is possible as part of the backlash that his powers, at the least, may diminish. He resisted the notion that his presence as a selector - which does not happen with Australia - was at fault for the present débâcle. "I have been doing it for seven years and we have lost one series in 11, so it's pretty successful," was his rejoinder. "From my point of view it's fine." But from chairman of selectors David Graveney's, one wondered? And it is 10 series.

Fletcher could not resist laying the blame elsewhere again. "Last time we were here we had more injuries but we didn't really have the players to compete. Here they have not performed as well as they should have done."

But if a coach is worth anything, is it not to bring players to a peak so they perform in the big ones? It did not sound right. And he wasn't joking.