Loyalty turns to ashes as Fletcher dishes the dirt on Flintoff's drinking

Revelations reflect uneasy relationship between former coach and his captain. Stephen Brenkley reports
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The Independent Online

Anybody who knows Duncan Fletcher slightly soon senses that he views loyalty as the measure of a man. It is his mantra and he conveys the impression that it is not so much a virtue as a necessity. Those who have never met him, on the other hand, may be slightly confused to be informed of this considering the dirt he is now dishing on Andrew Flintoff.

Others among the cricketing great and good are also in Fletcher's line of fire in his serialised autobiography, Behind The Shades, which is to be published next week. But Flintoff is the gold target because he was England's captain in their ill-fated quest to retain the Ashes last winter, which went some way towards costing Fletcher his job as the coach.

There is no question that Fletcher feels that Flintoff let him down last winter. But Flintoff might have due cause for thinking that the boot should be on the other foot, not simply because of some salacious revelations designed to sell a few more books but because of a relationship going back almost seven years.

Where, Flintoff might suppose, as he recovers in the US from his latest encounter with an ankle surgeon, has been the loyalty? In his book Fletcher implies a closeness with Flintoff that never existed. Until Flintoff became captain, the pair barely exchanged the time of day and it was always clear that neither was comfortable in the other's company. For long enough that hardly seemed to matter. One was hailed as a great technical coach, the other was the inspirational player, and the coach knew it.

Fletcher has now revealed how the all-rounder arrived at a morning net session during the Australian one-day series in January still drunk from the night before. This was doubtless unwise, but how times change. In the old days did not men like Denis Compton arrive on the morning of the match, never mind practice, still in their dinner jackets?

By the time of Flintoff's misdemeanour in Sydney the Ashes had already been lost 5-0 and Flintoff's stock as a captain could hardly have fallen any lower – except with the coach. It was hardly the first time that Fred had been drunk in charge of his team and nor was it the first time that Fletcher failed to act decisively.

During the Champions Trophy in India that took place immediately before the Ashes, Flintoff held court in the hotel bar in Jaipur several times until the small hours. He was as ever well-behaved and jolly but it was still slightly disconcerting since England were in the middle of a major tournament and playing appallingly.

If Fletcher did not know about these instances, he must have been alone, holed up as he invariably was in his hotel room. But on one occasion this reporter, on his way to bed some time after midnight, suggested to Flintoff that he might do likewise. He did not. This was Fred being Fred, no more, but somehow it did not augur well for the impending Ashes. So it proved and because of Fletcher's lack of firm leadership Flintoff went on to disgrace himself further (or add yet more gaiety to the nation, depending on your standpoint on these matters) when he tried to launch a pedalo while tight in the small hours during England's World Cup campaign.

Fletcher, incidentally, would like his readers to believe that he acted resolutely by banning Flintoff for a match and stripping him of the vice-captaincy (Michael Vaughan by then having returned as captain). But at that point the News of the World had the pictures of Pedalo Fred ready for their front page, so his options were hardly plentiful.

There is another reference to Flintoff much more potentially damning than his occasional liking for a pint. Fletcher's plumping for Flintoff as the Ashes captain was effectively the deciding vote because the other two selectors were split. In the absence through injury of Vaughan, the selectors' chairman, David Graveney, wanted Flintoff but Geoff Miller cast his vote for Andrew Strauss.

Fletcher now says: "I was not confident we were making the right decision but I also knew that if Flintoff was not captain he would be a huge hindrance to the side. It was his benefit year and he would have concentrated on that. He would also have teamed up with his mate Steve Harmison and they would have been difficult to manage."

This begs several questions, two of which are crucial: how did Fletcher conclude that Flintoff would lose interest without the captaincy, and was it not the job of the coach as, in effect, the team manager to make it work whatever decision was made? If Fletcher was not confident, it seems he took the easy option.

Contrast all this opprobrium being heaped on Flintoff's essentially generous nature with the way he handled his own autobiography. His ghostwriter tried all manner of approaches to try to get Flintoff to open up about Fletcher. The ghost and the hero knew the truth of the matter – that Flintoff did not think much of Fletcher as a man and, indeed, was sometimes bemused at the lack of social interaction. But Flintoff steadfastly refused.

Fletcher's ghost had no such difficulty.

It came as something of a shock at the end of the one-day series in Australia in February when Flintoff paid tribute to Fletcher as the man "who has kept taking the knocks for us". Maybe Flintoff recognised how easy Fletcher had gone after the Sydney nets incident.

Yet Fletcher could never find such reciprocal loyalty in his soul. Indeed, many England camp followers were aghast at Fletcher's press conference after England's improbable Test defeat in Adelaide, which put them 2-0 down after they had scored 551 for 6 in their first innings.

Fletcher was asked about the controversial selections of Ashley Giles (ahead of Monty Panesar) and Geraint Jones (instead of Chris Read). Three times he deflected the question by insisting that it was not a one-man selection panel. If it was not quite Simon Peter, it left nobody in any doubt that he was laying the blame fairly and squarely on Flintoff, since he was the only other selector on tour.

When England were beaten in Perth and the Ashes were surrendered 3-0 (it was to get worse), Fletcher appeared again to defend himself. He was needled by the tone of the questioning, but then he seemed to concede no fault whatever. Afterwards we met in the hotel lobby and he said that loyalty was the most important quality in a man and that he could look at himself in the mirror in the morning. Maybe, but after the po-faced mischief of his book some people may be wondering who is looking back from behind the shades.

Winter of discontent: England on tour

* 7 OCT – 5 NOV 2006

CHAMPIONS TROPHY (India) Lose to India and Australia. Finish bottom of group.

* 23 NOV 2006 – 5 JAN 2007

ASHES SERIES (Australia) Lose Ashes in 5-0 whitewash.

* 12 JAN – 11 FEB 2007

ONE-DAY SERIES (Australia) England qualify for final of tournament featuring New Zealand and Australia. Beat the hosts 2-0 in final.

* 13 MAR – 28 APR 2007

WORLD CUP (West Indies) England stumble into Super Eights of World Cup before bowing out of the tournament early once again.

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