Andy Flower glanced at his watch, grimaced and apologised to the group of cricketing enthusiasts clustered eagerly around him. "Sorry guys, no time for bowling – I've not time-managed this session very well," he said.
There was no sign of disappointment in his audience, who had spent the previous hour hurling themselves with middle-age defying gusto into a series of fielding drills enthusiastically set out by the England coach in the indoor school at The Oval. The session had overrun but there was no rush by Flower to draw it to a close; his feet twinkled into a perfect impression of a Brian Lara cover drive as he ignored gestures from his minders to wind up to make one last point about being comfortable in your stance at the crease.
There are not many instances of Flower having to say sorry since he took on his current role. It will be three years in January since he replaced Peter Moores as England coach and they have been years of mounting success that have seen his adopted country become the best Test team in the world for the first time.
The challenge is about to get even more demanding and over the course of the next two years time management will become ever more important to England's chances of staying where they are, looking down on the rest, in the Test and Twenty20 arenas and climbing upwards in the one-day game. The schedule through to the Ashes at the end of 2013 is gruelling and will make huge demands of players and coaching staff. The amount of cricket the game's governing body and their national counterparts are asking their leading players to commit to has never been greater. Add in the demands and eye-catching financial attractions of the Indian Premier League, the underwhelming Champions League and the rest of the burgeoning global Twenty20 merry-go-round and it adds up to an unsustainable workload.
Some players, like Lasith Malinga, the enigmatic left-armer who should be leading Sri Lanka's attack, have already decided that Test cricket, supposedly the game's pinnacle, is not worth the bother. Malinga is unlikely to be the last box-office name to turn their back on Tests. "There's a great danger [of others following suit]," says Flower. He has changed from his training gear and we are now installed in an office hidden down a maze of whitewashed corridors behind The Oval dressing rooms. "The rewards out there for playing less cricket are obvious. It's a great sadness to world cricket that we're losing players like him from Test cricket – that guy should be playing Test cricket for Sri Lanka. There's no doubt about that – it makes the world game more interesting if he's involved in it.
"The ICC have to address that as a serious problem looming in the future. They have to act very responsibly and make decisions on what's good for the game in the future. I'm not sure that's the case at the moment.
"The intent behind which nations draw up their fixture list is an intent based on financial gain as opposed to testing the best against the best. Because of that we have a jumbled fixture list. We have situations where we play seven-match one-day series, which are too long and, if they're one sided, can be damaging for the game. We have situations whereby two of the best and most exciting nations in the world – Australia and South Africa – are playing a two-match Test series. That's a ridiculous situation and I'm saddened by it. The intent behind creating the fixture list has to be addressed. We want to find out who the best side in the world is and we want to have them compete in exciting conditions and exciting series but at the moment the intent is a financial one and that's why the fixture list is comprised."
Flower's side are currently on a two-month break before they head for the United Arab Emirates and a three Test series with Pakistan, the first in which they will officially be world No 1. That lofty status will not be the main focus of attention ahead of the first game in Dubai. Far from it. The very public fallout from England's previous meeting with Pakistan concluded in a London courtroom last month with prison sentences imposed on Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir and Flower will speak with his players when they assemble ahead of the tour. His message will be clear.
"I envisage us having a good series, played hard but played in the right spirit, and there's no reason why that shouldn't be the case," he says. "There's been a very public trial and a very serious trial for these young men and it's a very sad story. None of us are perfect and we've all made mistakes of varying degrees over the years. We should not sit too high on our pedestals.
"It is a Test match series in which both sides should be going out to win and there's nothing more complicated than that. If anyone wants to over-complicate it and create more of an issue then I will definitely be stepping in. That's not the attitude we want to take into this series."
If there is a cricketer who can justify occupying a pedestal then it is Flower. He has not set foot in his homeland since 2003 when he wore a black armband in protest at how Zimbabwe was, and still is, governed, but it is part of what impresses about the 43-year-old that he will not assume knowledge or look to make for the moral high ground at the drop of a poppy. He considers each question and answers carefully.
Will it be difficult to concentrate the players' minds on simply playing the game despite the accompanying baggage? "That's their job, that's what they get paid for. Their job is not to make a moral standpoint and take that on to the field of play. Who are they to do so?"
What damage has been done to the sport he has spent much of his life in? He sips his coffee, breaks a biscuit in two and thinks for a moment. "I can't answer that because I can't quantify it. It would have been very interesting to sit through the trial – I would have liked to have done so to understand more about it. It's sad for everyone involved and it also sounds as if it wasn't only those instances that happened. None of us are naive enough to believe that those were the only incidents that occurred but... we have to look forward. Part of our responsibility in being leaders in our groups is to make sure that our players are operating in the right spirit. Education is very important, especially for young players, and there should be constant updates in educating young players on the dangers, on the methods that some of these people use to initiate communication but also on the repercussions. These are serious matters and the recent case and sentencing handed out are graphic illustrations of the seriousness of getting involved."
Flower's current task is to pick over the drubbing England's one-day side received in India last month. After the fifth defeat in succession Flower drew parallels with his first game in charge of the Test side when England were all out for 51 in Jamaica. "We used that 51 all out to help us become a better team and we have to do the same from this last experience in India," says Flower. "We expected to compete hard for that series and we didn't. In four out of the five we were completely outplayed. To win like we did in that Twenty20 [that followed the ODI series] was a great achievement, but to lose like we did was shocking."
Flower was himself an adroit one-day player, making 213 appearances for Zimbabwe, as well as playing in 63 Tests in a first-class career that spanned two decades. The switch to coaching was accelerated by injury when he moved from Essex to become England's assistant coach. Is coaching to an extent a substitution for playing?
"I think it is actually, in satisfaction terms. You can gain a lot of personal satisfaction from coaching, like you do as a player. But as a player you are pretty single-minded about the pursuit of your own goals. You have be single minded about maximising your own personal capacity. When you do that your team is benefiting. The difference is as a coach what you are trying to do is maximise the potential of other people."
The reason for Flower's presence at The Oval when he is supposed to be on a break is to talk coaching. The Sky Sports ECB coach education programme has produced over 45,000 coaches – this announcement in a week when English football has been ruing its low number of qualified coaches – but Flower stresses it is not just a numbers game. "You can have as many coaches as you want but if the quality is poor you're going to get a poor learning environment," he says.
"An investment like this is definitely going to pay dividends in the future, there's no doubt about that. But I emphasise that the quality of coaching is important because you can have damaging coaching as well. A coach is a responsible position and he has got to embrace that responsibility. You can damage players through poor coaching very easily, probably more easily than you can help players. It's easy to take away people's confidence. It's quite a skill, or gift even, to be able to give people confidence."
Andy Flower is ambassador for the Sky Sports ECB Coach Education Programme, which aims to attract and train coaches at all levels of cricket in England and Wales. www.skysports.com/coachingReuse content