In the rather chilly English summer of 2009, I forced myself to borrow a book from my University library, a book that I thought would be good to carry around and read in the parks, a book that in many ways was a scathing account of a little known Zimbabwean coach who was largely responsible for the resurgence of English cricket. Little did I know that Duncan Fletcher, the author of Behind the Shades would be the man to fill Gary Kirsten's massive boots as India's next cricket coach.
Today, the BCCI, in it's own wisdom has opted to entrust the fortunes of the national team to Duncan Fletcher for a period of two years, a decision, I am honestly yet to come to terms with. My initial thoughts say this isn't particularly a bad appointment, for Fletcher's credentials as an international coach are nothing short of first-class. But from whatever little I know about him, largely thanks to that book, this may not be the best decision either.
Like many of you, I am equally ambiguous. Ambiguous, primarily on the basis that given the heights this team has reached in the past two years especially, Fletcher, I suspect may not be the right man to take this project forward. First and foremost, he's walking into a dressing room, which has probably epitomized achievement in the past 24 months or so. This is unlike the ravaged England team suffering from an old-school hangover, which took over and acted decisively in freshening it up, and thereby along the way, bring about a change in the mental psyche, with English cricketers beginning to believe in something they often doubted - their own abilities.
But all this came at a good price, given that he spoke very little, and took criticisms by former English cricketers rather personally and somewhere, became a sitting duck for an already growing hostile press. His appointment to the Indian job was welcomed with a sense of profound antagonism by two former Indian captains in Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev openly questioning his credentials and asserting their preference for an Indian successor to Gary Kirsten.
In a way, Fletcher is entering a territory he may not like, and maybe even not be used to - a mindset best represented by the Indian cricket media through its former cricketers - fickle, self-righteous and jingoistic at most times. Will he able to assert himself? I am not too sure. Or possibly, while making a case for him, you'd have to concede that his experiences in England would have made him a smarter individual, more understanding of the way the media work and give him the benefit of doubt for now.
Secondly, I've bothered myself with a couple of questions over this week about this appointment and I might try to answer them here. "Is Duncan Fletcher the right man for Indian cricket?" and "Is Indian cricket ready for Duncan Fletcher?" with the former being the more fundamental of the two. To begin with, I reckon Fletcher's tactical acumen in modern-day cricket coaching is next to none, given the market, with no better demonstration than the meticulous "notebook" planning and subsequent execution in England's Ashes win over Australia in 2005.
India can expect a certain degree of method coming into their cricket, a streamlined approach much in the mould of the late Bob Woolmer, where batting becomes a form of scientific perfection than a form of artistic freedom, with batsmen choosing to paint the canvas as they choose to. In this regard, I think India have got their man, a top-quality batting coach, whose credentials are best judged by the amount of steady progress Hashim Amla has made as an international batsman for South Africa. Equally, I think India will also benefit from the fact that despite being an old-school cricketer, who last represented Zimbabwe in 1983, Fletcher as a coach has probably the most thorough understanding of the way modern-day cricket is played. So, in a way, going by his curriculum-vitae, India and the BCCI have made a thoughtful appointment, with a man known for his measured and balanced approach to cricket and to use the clichéd expression, a not-so-low-profile yet "behind the scenes (or shades)" person.
If Fletcher has to succeed as an Indian coach, he must quite clearly look up to people like Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger or some senior sporting personalities, who have seamlessly merged their abilities with a larger duty towards the player/club/team they've been in charge of - a father-figure sort of a role, where players' destinies have been modelled by a relationship of professional and personal warmth with their talent being channelled to produce maximum results. Indian cricket might eventually head into a phase where being clinical and efficient than effective would be keywords, that Fletcher has so easily emphasized upon.
Now to answering the second question, equally important in the context of where Indian cricket might head in the next two-three years, the blueprint of which will be authored by Duncan Fletcher and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. For Fletcher himself, it will be one of his biggest challenges, and as I said before, in India, he'll experience a media environment unrivalled in his cricketing sojourns, and to put rather bluntly, worse than the British tabloids. I suspect his success will depend on how quickly he can adapt himself to this environment more than the dressing room he'll be perched in.
Some of his attributes, particularly, a more hands on approach, which went terribly awry during Greg Chappell's reign may not necessarily go down well with the players and the whole cricketing ecosystem in this country. This is precisely where my scepticism about his suitability for the job comes in. The Indian dressing room he'll shortly enter isn't so much about the initial phase of mediocrity he experienced in England, but one, that is filled with legends, prospects and egos alike. Or in one word, achievers. And with man management being a central theme and expression in modern day cricket coaching, his first test would entail managing these larger-than-life demigods. That to me was Gary Kirsten's success, possibly age being a massive factor in the relationship Indian cricketers struck with him, a man they could go to, expect an arm around the shoulder, a masseur if you'd like, a man who recognized the need to massage their egos positively, than rub it the other way.
As proven with Chappell, Indian cricket is allergic to therapists who try and do the talking. They prefer someone who's willing to hear you out and where mutual respect becomes the terms of engagement than a one-way-street. That is where I'd love to see Fletcher change his way of functioning. Or maybe, with the environment he will be thrust into, that's what he's got to do, without a choice. Critically, if he's learnt from some of the bitter episodes he witnessed in England, mainly the mismanagement of Andrew Flintoff, which ultimately ended up in a breakdown of their relationship, he'll be a much better personality than I think of him at the moment.
In Fletcher, Indian cricket may have bumped into a man who brings a sense of stubbornness about himself, coupled with an almost blind belief in loyalty, the gist of which I could sense in Behind the Shades. His decision to pick Ashley Giles over Monty Panesar in that Ashes whitewash of 2006, a much criticised decision back then, was born out of the fact that Giles was one of his loyal footsoldiers, and even more, that Fletcher didn't rate Panesar's abilities as a spinner. The rest, in Panesar's case, was history as he picked a fiver in the first innings, which not only proved Fletcher wrong, but was the beginning of the Fletcher era for England.
Also, from the book, you could almost sense that Fletcher is a kind of a man who doesn't feel short of taking credit in positive situations, but when in doubt and distress, abdicate responsibility, put the blame on the captain (Read: Ashes 2006, Fletcher, Flintoff). And this, particularly won't work in India, as ably demonstrated during the Chappell era. Age is another factor I am slightly concerned about, given that Fletcher is a sexagenarian, all of 62 years and questions about his ability to cope up with the challenge of travelling both within India and around the world creep in. It's admirable to see a man, who after his stint with England, said he wanted to explore opportunities in rugby union or settle down with a small business in Cape Town. That, clearly didn't happen given his consultant roles with SA and NZ respectively, but given his age, you can't but admire that even at 62, a man reckons he's best placed to take on the biggest challenge of his career - coaching India.
India's tour of England will be Fletcher's first formal assignment as India coach, in a way, a return to the backyard where it all began. The hat will be where it was, the shades back where they belong and some pages of that "notebook" will be filled with scribbles again. For Fletcher, the consummate challenge of taking Indian cricket forward or to the next level of their quest for excellence must be an exciting prospect given his desire for just that, but every baby-steps he takes towards that, will be scrutinized, analyzed and heckled manifold.
By the end of the English summer, I would hope to find my cure for this ambiguity. Welcome to India, Mr. Duncan Fletcher.