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.
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.
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.
What next for Fletcher, you ask? With India being out of international action for the next three months at the least, it could well mean a good healthy retreat back to Cape Town, back to his farms and dogs. Alternatively, he could well take the hard route of returning to his workplace, and use this break to primarily seek out his bosses and collectively introspect his tough year India have endured in international cricket. I’d hope for the latter, but I am guessing the former seems to be the more practical possibility. But either way, the space in India’s cricketing calendar provides ample time for Fletcher not just ponder over what might have been, but hopefully, consider what he could do next.
There’s almost a clarion, shrilling call for transition in India’s cricketing circles and one would imagine that Fletcher has this unenviable task of smoothly overseeing that process. And thankfully, Rahul Dravid has called it time and has rightly decided to move on. Also coinciding with Dravid’s departure from the Indian setup is the expeditious emergence of Virat Kohli, whose performances in the last 20 months or so has been nothing short of exceptional. Next in line could well be VVS Laxman, and if and when he takes the rather easy decision, India will have to bite the bullet and get going with his successor’s replacement.
Yes, as far as batting talents go, there’s an awful lot of back-up coming through the system, with and without international experience. Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma’s names will be thrown around on a regular basis and whoever gets the nod will almost instantly have to perform and consistently so. This not just presents Fletcher with an interesting challenge, but also, puts him in familiar territory.
In 2005, when Graham Thorpe exited English cricket ahead of the first Ashes Test at Lords, Fletcher called for Kevin Pietersen to be picked ahead of Ian Bell because he insisted on a No. 5 who could not just consolidate strong positions, but dominate bowling attacks with a degree of aggression. Rohit and Pujara, both though not in the same league as KP, should be credible frontrunners for that No. 5 position going by Fletcher’s “theory”. If anything, the fact that India play most of their cricket at home over the next 18 months should facilitate for the smooth transition by itself, especially given this belief that India should blood their youngsters at home before they’re exposed abroad.
One of the fundamental disappointments of the Fletcher era thus far, perhaps owing to tight schedules is the lack of interaction with the grassroot cricketing system within the country. A specific incident comes to mind. When India returned from England, Fletcher went home, skipping the Irani Trophy, where the Rest of India teams of yore were trained by national head coaches. But, this could yet change, given India’s home-heavy schedules in the next 18 months or so.
This would mean visiting specific domestic matches involving fringe players, giving the coaching staff additional opportunities to scout for specific aspects of the game in a match situation. It would also involve working closely with the National Cricket Academy, India’s U-19 and developmental squads. During this time, India’s ‘A’ team will be revived after a gap of two years and embark on a tour to the West Indies. Ideally, the BCCI must send Fletcher with the team not as coach but an observer, a scout to get a closer view of India’s bench strength and assess some of his wards.
The more interesting challenge comes with the bowling department, where Joe Dawes’ appointment couldn’t have been timed better. Both Dawes and Fletcher would at the least be required to assemble a bowling unit (not an attack) which would comprise of 10-15 bowlers at the bare minimum. This should involve what Fletcher himself calls an “intense” and “investigative” process of selection, keeping in touch with the line of thinking he seeks to promote i.e. pace. Interestingly, that is where Dawes’ temperate influence comes in, especially as someone who’s helped mentor some of the best young quicks in Queensland and South Australia. Talking of transition, it’s also time India start identifying an able replacement for Zaheer Khan, who at 33, doesn’t have a long international career ahead.
The next year or so will seek to define what the Fletcher era is going to really be about. For one, it’s a fairly exciting time to be an Indian coach, as unpopular as it may sound, given the results. This is because it’s got to a stage where certain things you’ve tried haven’t worked. This could well be time the time Fletcher starts demonstrating a certain degree of flexibility in his thinking, gradually ditching some of those three-decade old theories, and shelve that stubbornness, which surely doesn’t quite work in India and in a quiet little way rediscover himself as a coach. If ever Fletcher needed a good time to sit down and chalk India’s cricketing roadmap for the next five years or so, it’s now. For that to happen though, the dogs and the farm must wait.