What would Fletcher do?

India have suffered heavy defeats under their new coach. But he has the chance to turn things around.


As India’s tour of Australia meandered deeper into disaster, the team’s head coach Duncan Fletcher became the subject of jokes in the social media. “There’s no difference between the Indian cricket team’s coach and the country’s Prime Minister,” said one. “Duncan Fletcher is the new Manmohan Singh”, said another. The barbs were aimed at India’s disastrous run in international cricket under Fletcher’s charge. Those jokes, in all honesty, can’t be laughed as his first season in charge of the team has been underscored by a clear lack of vision and little or no reaction to arrest the slide that began at Lord’s during the English summer.

The first question-mark you raise against Fletcher’s stint is one of vision and fresh ideas, which unfortunately are completely lacking. There’s a hangover of the prosperous Gary Kirsten era which Fletcher has been unable to come to terms with. His approach has virtually tended to remain the same: erring on the side of caution, and not wanting to rock the boat, or perhaps — and I might be speculating here — being disallowed to do so by his employers.

You can cite a parallel from Premier League football. The Indian team’s situation at present is similar to Chelsea, whose owners resist change. As with the successful Kirsten era, Chelsea are hung-over from the Jose Mourinho era. Several coaches have come and gone since Mourinho; little has changed.

Sadly, by Fletcher’s own admission after the Sydney debacle earlier this year, nothing much has changed. “I don’t think much has changed. I had long chats with Gary. I am friendly with him. The approach, how you deal with an Indian side, we haven’t changed that much,” Fletcher said. The question still remains: what novelty is Fletcher bringing to the table that his predecessors haven’t already? This, to those who have read his autobiography, Behind the Shades, is very un-Fletcher like.

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It seems India haven't used Fletcher's batting expertise. Meanwhile, English players still seek his tips.India’s 0-8 hammering in England and Australia has been painful to watch. Not least India’s mediocre batting but the sheer inability of every department to overcome their own errors has been a disappointment. It’s ironic that Fletcher — a firm batting coach — has been unable to influence some of the established players about their woeful technical shortcomings in foreign conditions. This was best exemplified in Australia by Rahul Dravid’s string of bowled dismissals and Gautam Gambhir’s falling-over and tentative footwork.

Is he hesitant in tapping these all-time greats on their shoulders and pointing out their weaknesses? This is where that strange sense of passivity you associate with Fletcher comes in. It’s not apathy. But it could be termed perceived detachment or the “let it be” approach. While that worked beautifully during Kirsten’s time, it has gone awry under Fletcher. However, the perception outside is that some of the Indian batsmen haven’t quite “learnt to use Fletcher’s services effectively”. Someone close to Fletcher pointed out that England’s batsmen still keep in touch with him, and regard his tips “invaluable.”

Tactically, barring small exceptions, Fletcher’s era has bordered on the same old. It has had nothing new that manifests Duncan Fletcher’s “theories”. Fletcher has a well-known fetish for express fast bowlers. Evidence suggests it has worked for him — right from his Glamorgan days where he brought Waqar Younis to the club, to his stint with England where his four-pronged pace attack had the likes of Simon Jones and Steve Harmison acing the 85 mph barrier often.

Fair enough, you’d say, and that’s where it’s a case of credit due — a theory that is supremely responsible for the gradual emergence of high pace in the Indian bowling narrative. The quiet rise of Umesh Yadav is something to look forward to. Even the mere identification of Varun Aaron as a future pace-bowling prospect (albeit via a cranky speedometer) is a decently healthy sign. The concern, however, is something else.

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In an ideal world, you find pacers with discipline. But often, one must compromise control for pace. While Umesh has clocked over 150 kmph in Australia, it’s his inability to land six balls on a spot, the dirty habit of four bad balls in an over and critically, an inability make the batsman play at each of them that poses a problem. And the worthy challenge from here on, would involve taming Yadav into an effective pace bowler.

Even for a spinner, if you go by Fletcher’s numerous theories (not least the “cricket is a game of angles” one), Ravichandran Ashwin bowling his off-breaks from round the wicket, middle and leg line to a right-hander is considered an attacking angle, to which recent results have shown the contrary. Sadly, apart from changing the dimension of the bowling attack from the line-and-length stuff to bowling quick, Fletcher’s tactical contribution has been negligible. If anything, tactics bring the stubborn theorist in Fletcher out. In other words, if Plan A doesn’t work, keep trying Plan A till it works.

By his own admission, and full marks to that, Fletcher reckons India haven’t quite found the middle road yet — terrible inconsistency or too good at home, and nothing short of pathetic, away. Given that India play most of their Tests at home over the next 18 months or so, and since tactics and theories play little part in home conditions, where India have been unfailingly brilliant (even under Fletcher), he might have little to think over, modify or implement. But therein lies the wonderful opportunity for Fletcher to discover himself again and make that transformation from a theorist to a quiet reformist (something he’s still regarded highly for in English cricket circles) and ensure India’s cricketing destiny for the next five years, at least.

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