As theatre, the Oval Test could not be more enticing if it was directed by Sam Mendes and starred Nicole Kidman. A series decider, sold out for the first four days, it promises not just a superstar's 100th cap – in a city where he has never made a competitive international fifty – but a whole array of delicious contrasts: between India's surging momentum and England's home advantage, India's genius with the bat and England's canny competence, India's spin and England's seam, India's individuality and England's team ethic, Ganguly's spiky tenacity and Hussain's wily mind-games.
As a chapter in England's development, the game doesn't look so good. The temptation is for the whole summer – which, if not hot, has certainly been long – to be judged on these five days. It will be written off as a poor season if England lose, and acclaimed as a triumph if they win. From this point of view, the best result would be a draw – with the team batting last nine wickets down and one run short of their target, obviously.
Never mind England's summer, there are those who are threatening to judge the whole Fletcher-Hussain era on this result. Duncan Fletcher was at Lord's on Monday to discuss his next contract, and even some of the wiser heads in the press box took the opportunity to look askance on his record. Mike Atherton, mostly a firm supporter, totted up Fletcher's record (played 37, won 14, drawn 11, lost 12), compared it to David Lloyd's (32, 9, 11, 12) and pronounced it "not that" different. On Channel 4 Atherton has struck an exemplary balance between sympathy for ex-mates and candid comment, but in this case his loyalty to Lloyd seems to have got in his eye: the draws and losses may be the same, but the wins are dramatically different – 44 per cent as against 28.
A couple of other writers divided Fletcher's three-year stint in two, and noted that the four series wins in the first half have been followed by only one in the second half. The short answer to this is: since when was coaching a game of two halves?
The long answer is: yes, but... Australia, cricket's only superpower, came in the second half. And Zimbabwe, the nearest England get to playing a pushover, came in the first half.
And then there are the injuries and other absences, for reasons ranging from international terrorism to domestic strife. No sports person likes using the treatment table as an excuse, but it does play its part. Of the 19 Tests England have played in the second half of Fletcher's time as coach, how many do you reckon they have been at full strength for? Four, five, maybe seven? Actually it is one – the first, at Lord's in May 2001, when they swept Pakistan aside. And the missing players have tended to be major ones, the vertebrae of the team. Alec Stewart has missed six of those Tests, Darren Gough 12 so far, Nasser Hussain three, Andy Caddick six, Graham Thorpe eight so far, Marcus Trescothick three. Of England's opponents, only New Zealand, with injuries to Shane Bond and Chris Cairns, have suffered anything similar.
Have England got worse? It's hard to tell when they can't play a first-choice team. What you can say is that the four successive series wins in 2000 to 2001, and the march up the championship table from ninth to third, were somewhat misleading. The victories in Pakistan and Sri Lanka were inspired but they were also stolen, a trick that Pakistan and New Zealand have since half-pulled on England, sneaking a late equaliser against the run of play. What goes around comes around, and what goes up the table must come down (unless it is wearing a baggy green cap). England are a mid-table side, perhaps a little better than that when everybody turns up, and a little worse when they don't.
Coaches should be judged on far more than their results. What Fletcher has done, along with Hussain, is to change the culture of the England team. They are much closer now to making the best of what they have, which is all the fans can ask. When Hussain took over, there was no realistic alternative for the captaincy: now there are three, Mark Butcher (who needs to conquer his fear of Anil Kumble), Marcus Trescothick (who has to play, for all his doubts, because he just might win the match and he is no more likely to lose it than Robert Key), and Michael Vaughan, who is now batting as well as Trescothick and who should be named next week as vice-captain for the Ashes, since he has similar playing credentials and far more experience of captaincy.
As well as his work with the future captains, Fletcher can be judged on the way he has handled a former one. When Alec Stewart was asked, as he became England's most capped player, who had been the biggest influences on him, he mentioned three – his father Micky and Graham Gooch, which was predictable, plus Fletcher, which wasn't. Earlier in the summer I wrote that Fletcher and Stewart had had a "somewhat wary" relationship. Fletcher assured me this wasn't the case, and Stewart's tribute proved his point. Even if England lose by an innings over the next few days, they should make very sure they don't lose their coach.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003.
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