Mind games believer and quiet achiever

The Duncan Fletcher interview: England's cricket coach slowly reaps rewards of an emphasis on technique and fitness

For a chap who was passed a poisoned chalice, Duncan Fletcher looks as though he might have been sipping from the cup of plenty. The job of coach to the England cricket team is supposed to lead to regular fits of apoplexy, induced by the chalice's eternal contents, to wit a combination of a losing team and baying critics, but Fletcher is obviously unaware of his responsibilities in this regard.

For a chap who was passed a poisoned chalice, Duncan Fletcher looks as though he might have been sipping from the cup of plenty. The job of coach to the England cricket team is supposed to lead to regular fits of apoplexy, induced by the chalice's eternal contents, to wit a combination of a losing team and baying critics, but Fletcher is obviously unaware of his responsibilities in this regard.

He is taciturn, given neither to extremes of emotion nor flights of fancy, he exhibits contentment but not complacency. He will not be easily deterred from his course and he will probably not be deterred by any method you care to name.

"I felt a lot of apprehension when I took on the job," he said. "There was a lot associated with what had gone before with England, not problems but soul-searching if you like and you couldn't not be aware of that. I think we have made some progress. The South African tour was quite successful, although we lost, and we have continued since then. We could do with getting more runs and although our fielding has improved it could be better. We're fit but could be fitter."

Progress then but not world beaters and he knows it. When he speaks of small advances and the introduction of new players he is well aware that this can only be measured by winning the series against West Indies. The nerve-racking victory at Lord's by two wickets was crucial. It may indeed be seen to be a turning point in his tenure. "There is a confidence about the team now, an improved self-belief. Of course, we can go on and win this series but we must guard against overconfidence."

Fletcher is the model of the calm, professional coach. He is big on communication (and fitness) but does not indulge in meaningless team talks. His way is to invite players to take responsibility, thereby infusing the whole side with a better approach to their work.

"I always think it's surprising how few senior players in England are in positions of responsibility where they pass on their advice and experience. We should encourage that because when, say, a senior player tells a younger one that he should not be doing such and such he will make doubly sure that he doesn't do it himself. The whole team benefits."

He has set some store in his system of forming a players' committee in each of his teams. They meet, bounce ideas off each other, may talk about the composition of the team and what they should wear. The committee liaises with the rest of the dressing-room.

Fletcher is a Zimbabwean who played no Test cricket but was their captain when they beat Australia in the World Cup, still their only victory over the best team around. His coaching credentials burgeoned both at Western Province in South Africa and at Glamorgan. Both his sides won Championships. He is big on technique - all the England batsmen speak highly of his advice - but bigger on the mind.

"The gap between ordinary first-class cricket and Test cricket is huge and it has undoubtedly got bigger. That's because in other countries their Test players play almost no other first-class state or provincial cricket at all. It's a very hard step up, difficult to take and difficult to select. It's almost a gut feeling that a player will have what it takes in the head.

"We've picked several new players for England. Some have come through. Sometimes a young player benefits from having a go and then going back to his club for a bit of readjustment. But they're not forgotten. You can have a lot of technique but the most difficult thing to know is how they'll cope. The players themselves don't know how they'll manage very often."

Fletcher is a little hazy on the art of selection. He watches what cricket he can outside the England team and watches still more on television. ("It's better in some ways for making judgements. You can see more.") But he leaves the feeling that the process can be a stab in the dark. Chris Schofield, the Lancashire leg spinner, for instance, was handed a central contract and an England debut earlier this summer. "He was another one we picked on hearsay," said Fletcher. The selectors have to talk to people and take their words. Schofield had a good tour with the England A team last winter but on the evidence so far is not yet of Test class.

"He can bowl but he's got to bowl more. It is a bit concerning that he has gone back to Lancashire and hasn't bowled as much as he could because that's the only way he can get better. But we can't interfere with county policy and what they do when the players are back there."

There was the merest hint in this rock-steady man's demeanour that he may be at his wits' end with some counties. Many are publicly unhappy (and privately seething) that players who are now centrally contracted to the England and Wales Cricket Board are being pulled out of county matches. They were horrified when the decision was made last week to stop all of them playing in the last two rounds of county matches. A hard winter lies ahead after a hard summer. It made more than a kind of sense.

"I would like us to have more centrally contracted players," Fletcher said, "16 or 17, a mix of the established, experienced player and the younger ones, almost a touring party. England should have beenthe first country in the world tohave central contracts yet we were the last. It simply shouldn't have happened like that."

Still, he can dictate when theydon't play - and is happy to take it on the chin for players who may be telling their counties how desperate they are to turn out with their old muckers in the shires. But the problem arises when centrally contracted players are picked by their counties and, like Schofield, are arguably being misused. It is probable that he has little sympathy with counties who complain about missing the odd international. The records show that Fletcher's Western Province became champions without five of what would have been their strongest team because they were away with South Africa.

Fletcher's England is undoubtedly an improved England but the NatWest Series and the season's first Test rubber apart, both against Zimbabwe - not tinpot trophiesexactly but not hauls we yearn for either - they have as yet won nothing. Of England's nine Tests under Fletcher they have won three and lost three. "There's evidence that we're better in tight situations," he said. "The Test we won in Centurion was tight and so was the one at Lord's against West Indies. It helps a side when they show they can hold their nerve."

What every cricket follower in England wants to know, of course, is after beating West Indies and acquitting themselves creditably on the different pitches of Pakistan and Sri Lanka this winter, can they regain the Ashes. Fletcher said he wasn't thinking that far ahead but his eyes perhaps betrayed that he was not about to make any foolish claims on that score.

He has built up a rapport with Nasser Hussain, which is remarkable considering they had never met until their appointments were announced last July. "He's a good guy, good temperament, good communicator with his team." But he agreed that the captain needs some runs.

Not all Fletcher's hunches, if that is what they are, have been correct. But he defies any player to say that they have not been given a proper crack under his regime. Schofield (two matches) and Steve Harmison (none as yet) might demur with that estimation but he is clearly determined to secure a settled side. If he is concerned about the apparent lack of young players coming through he denies it.

"We have got some in, Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick in the next Test, for instance. But the way is to introduce new players gradually. If you get one coming through every year internationally that's a good return. That's just about how it happens elsewhere and then if you get three players in a year once in a while that's a bonus."

In the past Fletcher has had a censorious word or two about the habits of young players. But it is only to try to make them see how hard it is at the top. Last winter it was not difficult to discern that his generalised comments might be directed at Graham Swann, the boisterous Northamptonshire all-rounder, and this summer Andrew Flintoff might have been on his mind. He trenchantly denied any form of reverse psychology - i.e. telling the press about Flintoff's being too heavy and then seeing him top score in a one-dayer. "He needs to be fitter and he knows that but that doesn't apply only to Freddie. It applies to them all. Tiger Woods is a golfing genius but he works damned hard in the gym. Cricket probably demands more physically than golf and we should learn from that example. As for Freddie, he has been left out of the side for the next Test match. But he made the best possible response with his innings in the NatWest Trophy for Lancashire. It was an innings of mighty hits but he didn't slog. I can't pick England teams of the future, but he'll be back."

Fletcher has the respect of his players and he is obviously fond of them and the game. Not that he would put it like that. How much closer he is to taking his chalice to the land of milk and honey maybe known sometime in early September.

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