I spent the better part of Wednesday morning—when news broke of Duncan Fletcher’s appointment as coach of the Indian cricket team—trying to remember what I had seen of him in the 1983 World Cup. The only clear memory I had was of him bagging Ravi Shastri’s wicket at Tunbridge Wells while Kapil Dev was playing out his 175 not out magnum opus.
Already then into his 30s, Fletcher did not have a long international career, but earned renown as a coach, more specifically when in charge of the England team from 1999, the high point of his tenure obviously being the Ashes victory in 2005. The subsequent Ashes series was lost, and he moved out of his post after England’s poor showing in the 2007 World Cup, ostensibly to spend his time in retirement.
The successor: Duncan Fletcher replaces a man who was about 20 years his junior.
His appointment as India coach, therefore, does carry an element of surprise—and yet was not entirely unexpected. In Indian cricket circles, Fletcher’s name was being discussed in whispers for a while now. But it took a three-month carousel-ride by the Board of Control for Cricket In India (BCCI)—in tandem with senior pros in the dressing room—to firm up his name as the person to replace Gary “Guru” Kirsten.
Indeed, Fletcher’s name was suggested by the outgoing coach himself a couple of months before the World Cup when the BCCI’s efforts to woo him to stay on had failed. In a sense, Fletcher had been Kirsten’s mentor apart, of course, from having several splendid achievements to his credit as coach of England.
However, the BCCI was not exactly enamoured with Fletcher when the hunt began. At 62, he was thought to be old for the rigours of the contemporary game, more so in the Indian context, with its peculiar pulls and tugs that have in the past felled even an imposing former cricketer like Greg Chappell.
Also read | Ayaz Memon’s earlier column
Kirsten’s success had led to the belief that a younger man, who could be a friend rather than schoolmaster, was a better fit for the Indian dressing room. Stephen Fleming and Andy Flower, therefore, were the more favoured options since both are known to India’s senior pros, having played against them not too long back.
But Fleming refused despite his proximity to BCCI president-elect N. Srinivasan and skipper M.S. Dhoni as coach of the Chennai Super Kings. And the England Cricket Board managed to hold back Flower. Interestingly, there are several former Australians and South Africans as coaches or assistant coaches currently in India on Indian Premier League (IPL) duty, but none impressed the BCCI mandarins enough. With an Indian coach also being ruled out for reasons that are only too well-known, Fletcher was revisited again.
I understand parleys with him had been on for some months now, and included a couple of meetings with the BCCI administrators and inputs from senior pros when the Indian team toured South Africa before the World Cup. The final decision was pending the sorting out of remuneration and date of commencement issues. These details were apparently sorted out last week.
So what are the challenges ahead for Fletcher?
In my opinion, cricket coaching is not a supra-technical job in developing skills of players as is widely imagined; nor is it so much about back-room slide-rule theorizing as John Buchanan-types have made it out to be. The pace and texture of this game make it different from, say, football or hockey, where the coach’s role is entirely different. In cricket, the ship is essentially run by the captain.
In the Indian context particularly, it has been seen that the better man managers rather than the greater cricketer have made for successful coaches, e.g. John Wright and Gary Kirsten vis-a-vis Greg Chappell. Winning the trust of the players—especially the seniors—will be Fletcher’s first task. He cannot end up becoming a power centre himself.
It is clear that if the senior pros are on the coach’s side, 90% of the battle is won, because they automatically end up performing the leadership roles in training and in the middle. In India’s case, Fletcher’s relationship with Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh would be considered crucial.
There is not much “teaching” that a coach can impart to such accomplished players. Of course, if there are visible technical discrepancies and flaws in the seniors, his job is to point this out—but success lies in how subtle and unobtrusive the communication is.
The flip side is that he will at all times have to spot and groom youngsters and fringe players so that good talent is on hand to support the seniors, and keep the current momentum of Indian cricket going. Indeed, that is going to be Fletcher’s most daunting task: With India already ranked No. 1 in Tests and having won the World Cup, the challenge really is to stay at the top.
I wish the BCCI had also appointed an Indian as assistant coach so that in the next two years he could have learnt the ropes from Fletcher. But as in corporate—and one dare say spiritual—India, succession planning has not merited enough attention.
Be that as it may, Fletcher steps into very big shoes because Kirsten leaves behind a mighty legacy. How he fits in remains to be seen. He will need some luck, but will need to make most of it on his own.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at beyondboundaries @livemint.com