Fulfilment of the dream Duncan built

How Fletcher the meticulous and Vaughan the proactive laid the foundations for Freddie the incomparable

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The Independent Online

 

There, in essence, was one of the main reasons for England's stupendous triumph in the Ashes after 18 of the longest, most arduous years. They had planned meticulously and their head coach, Duncan Fletcher, had been the chief architect of those plans because of his rigorous attention to detail. If he had been creating a 50-storey skyscraper rather than the overthrow of a cricket team, Fletcher would not have left before he was sure the screws in the basement skirting boards were exactly aligned.

But there was more, much more, than that. He had helped to assemble, mostly by design, partly by accident, a team capable of bringing his schemes to fruition. (It should not be forgotten that unexpected though this triumph might have been, it was England's sixth consec-utive series victory, a record unmatched since the 1880s, when the only other teams around were Australia and South Africa.)

Above all, Fletcher had Michael Vaughan, a great captain who allied instinct to deliberation in a way probably not seen before. Maynard again: "He's such a proactive captain and that's not accidental. He has been like that throughout, while Ricky Ponting has been reactive."

So was the downfall of Australia plotted by a coach with an uncanny way of detecting the smallest discrepancies and a fellow man of steel who was unwilling to take a step backwards from the world champions. Maynard, a surprising appointment as assistant coach at the start of the summer, was part of the large support staff with specific roles. Not that any of them could have foreseen the breathtaking nature of the series.

A trawl through the records reveals no series like it for perpetual down-to-the- wire excitement. The 1894-95 series might have run it close (England led 2-0 after victories by 10 runs in the first, 94 runs in the second after being bowled out for 75, were pulled back to 2-2 and won the fifth). England won because they played aggressive cricket, refusing to be cowed by a side with an awesome (in all senses) reputation.

"Duncan Fletcher and me have a passion for the game," said Maynard, who certainly got his current job because the pair spent time together at Glamorgan, when they were coach and captain. "We don't watch the game, we inspect it. I don't think I've ever watched a game without saying, 'Oh, he should have been a bit squarer there', and Fletcher is like that. So's Vaughan." So are most of the people on board. That is why Fletcher hired them or kept them.

Maynard was speaking in the Long Room at Lord's after the bus ride through London, the jubilant gathering in Trafalgar Square and the rendezvous with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. Tony Blair did not meet Andrew Flintoff. Perhaps Mr Blair did not recognise him.

Everyone else wants a piece of the all-rounder, but he will let them have it grudgingly. It is a risky statement to make, but Flintoff will not change from the engaging, honest, small-town boy he is. No side, no gimmicks, all heart. When the rest of the boys went clubbing on the night of the victory, Flintoff demurred. He was happy simply to stay at the bar and have a few (well, all right, a huge amount of) drinks. He is the best player and the ultimate team man in a squad that so obviously recognises the importance of the team. They grouped round Geraint Jones last week when exception was taken to an item in these columns. It was an unnecessary slight too far as well, and they said so.

Not even Fletcher could have calculated that Flintoff would bestride the game at this precise moment. Doubtless he suspected how far he could go, but the juxtaposition of Australia and Flintoff's arrival at greatness was a piece of outrageously fortuitous timing.

Flintoff and Vaughan will receive most of the plaudits and honours going, which is as it should be. They performed the deeds, but everybody else contributed key components to the improbable defeat of the Australians. Improbable still, because while England were much-deserved winners who controlled and dominated large parts of the series, it should never be forgotten that Australia began as overwhelming favourites who burst into a 1-0 lead.

In his reaction to the return of the Ashes, Fletcher too emphasised the importance of the team, and recalled a moment early in his tenure when the players had a team dinner in a Johannesburg restaurant on the tour to South Africa six years ago. He said that it was an important bonding exercise. "The team spirit was lacking when I joined. That night in Johannesburg kicked off England cricket. We were strangers and there were a lot of youngsters. We had a singsong and away we went."

It might have been a foundation more fragile than Fletcher recalls. In the next restaurant sat a group of travelling reporters - including this one. The players' boisterousness was extremely close to the mark, several South African diners were unquestionably upset. The reporters gave the team and Fletcher the benefit of the doubt, though it would have made a story at home all right. Who knows, it might have stopped the revival before it had begun.

England returned to South Africa last winter and won their fourth series in a row. Fletcher seemed more aloof than usual, and was the object of some scathing local press. It was a tight series, but some presumed the Ashes were already beginning to get to him.

At the end of the tour the strain almost showed. Appearing at the final press conference he grew decidedly tetchy when, after a discussion of the positives to be gleaned from the team's 3-1 one-day defeat, he was understandably asked about the negatives.

"Trust you to ask about the negatives," he barked in this direction before regaining his equanimity. Later he conceded to another reporter that he knew he should not be reacting as he did as soon as he opened his mouth. It was an indication that Fletcher is not the auto-maton he is sometimes wrongly made out to be. He conceals his feelings because that is the best way for the team and it is his way. From now on, of course, he can say to journalists what he likes.

Australia were caught cold by the brand of cricket that Fletcher and Vaughan espoused, and they never really warmed up. England's fightback was probably the more shocking for them for being put so courageously into practice after the heavy reversal at Lord's, when the tourists must have thought it was business as usual.

That morning at Edgbaston three things happened. Glenn McGrath fell over a cricket ball and sprained his ankle, Ricky Ponting won the toss and asked England to bat when every instinct should have told him and his advisers otherwise, and Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss came out with a blaze of strokeplay. It is tosh to suggest that they could not have done so had McGrath been present. Australia had the chance to bat. By the time Strauss was out in the 26th over England were 112 and the tempo had been set. It was never to be reversed.

England can do better. It was a flawed series, and while no side catches everything, England put down 25 chances and Australia 17, according to figures from the Cricinfo website. But crucially, they cost a total of 502 and and 983 runs respect-ively, or 20.08 and 57.82. That means simply that England kept on creating chances.

And what now? "Our job is not over. The team has got to move on. We need to keep working." That was Maynard in the champagne-filled, warm euphoria of the Long Room. It could have been Fletcher in the sober, cold light of day.

TOP TIPSTERS

The only national cricket writers who tipped England to win the Ashes were the Independent On Sunday's Stephens, Brenkley and Fay. Cricket correspondent Brenkley also wrote that "a humdinger series will capture the imagination because cricket can stand on its own two feet" and predicted that Kevin Pietersen "will play at least one coruscating innings". In a poll, Fay forecast: "England 2-1, hope springs..."

Feelgood factor: How the nation can make the most of cricket's finest hour. By Gary Lemke

Michael Vaughan, England cricket captain

Two years ago, when England won the Rugby World Cup, you saw the response they got when they got back. There were parts of me then thinking, 'Will this ever happen to cricket?' I thought the Ashes were important, but I didn't realise how important until I saw the amount of people who turned out today.

Ben Ruhrmund, Membership manager, England Supporters' Cricket Club

Cricket is the national sport again for the summer; it had been a dying sport for the past five to seven years. Now you see kids playing in the park again.

Kevin Lygo, Channel 4 director of television

We are delighted to see cricket restored to national popularity once more. The result is a wonderful payback on our six years of investment in the sport. The production team and the outstanding commentary team must take huge credit for having helped reinvigorate cricket coverage.

Andrew Flintoff, Man of the series

What's most exciting about winning it is it means I'll be awarded the freedom of Preston. I can drive a flock of sheep through the town centre, drink for free in 64 pubs and get a lift home with the police when I'm inebriated - what more could you want?

Mike Soper, ECB deputy chairman

Three years ago I was castigated in the media because I said I wanted cricket to become as popular as football. Today, looking at this response by the English public, I think we are just about there.

David Folb, Chairman of Lashings Cricket Club

It has brought cricket alive in Britain. And what's more the players have been great sporting role models for kids.

Steve Waugh, Former Australian cricket captain

This will breathe life into world cricket with the other teams seeing Australia's invincibility vanish. Fear will be replaced by expectation, intimidation will be met with confrontation. In most matches, the team that fields with purpose and intent wins, because it is a reflection of the hunger and attitude of the group.

Richard Lewis, Rugby Football League executive chairman

We believe the England cricket team's victory will be tremendous for British sport and we congratulate all of them. The Ashes series has been fantastically competitive, but the respect between the players and the positive atmosphere this has created is a tremendous advert for what sport can do to build relationships.

Adam Gilchrist, Australian vice-captain

There is no doubt we can learn from England, rather than the other way round. They have created a successful formula which involves a large support group. They have taken things to a new level.

Dennis Lillee, Former Australian fast bowler

If you thought this England team was good, with the exception of the wicket-keeper, just wait and see how much better it will be by the time the next Ashes series comes around. Imagine how dangerous Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones are going to be on harder, faster and bouncier Australian wickets in 2006-07.

Steve McClaren, English football manager/coach

That is what we all strive for, that is what everybody does. It does not matter whether it is a national team, a Premier League side or a Sunday league side. That is what you try to get within every team, that kind of spirit, togetherness, hard work, and then you achieve something.

Richard Caborn, Minister for Sport

The biggest difference between cricket and football is the respect for the officials. In cricket, there is never a direct challenge to the umpire's decision. The discipline of the cricket players has been remarkable. It has been a tough series but the respect shown between the teams, and their team-mates, has been exceptional.

Ian Botham, Former England cricketer

I am so proud of this England team. It wasn't always like that. For years, I'd sit in the commentary box and tell people how good England were even though I was lying through my teeth. Now, though, when I say England are a terrific side I genuinely mean it.

Eddie Jones, Australian rugby union coach

The Ashes is a sign of the times. What's clear is that the amount of investment England as a whole is putting into sport is starting to pay off. The work of Rod Marsh at the English Cricket Academy and Chris Spice with England Rugby is starting to pay dividends, because the teams are well prepared before they go out.

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