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Kanishkaa Balachandran

Kanishkaa Balachandran realised early enough that he was interested in little else besides cricket. After getting a Commerce degree, common sense prevailed when he joined Cricinfo, where he worked for more than four years as a journalist. He is currently finishing his Masters degree in Print Journalism at the University of Sheffield.

Fletcher has to take the hard call now

“Is it over now, do you know how
Pick up the pieces and go home”

Those lines from Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Womancould be taken as a parting message to the Indian team as they leave England with their limbs, minds and egos bruised. Luck and the weather may have deserted them on many occasions, but those factors will always be overshadowed by the final scoreline – eight defeats and no win.

There’s plenty to sort out in a short space of time to stage a comeback. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, despite striking rich with the bat, has been the face of India’s failure, having to answer questions day in day out to the media. However, we’re yet to hear from another important figure who, not surprisingly, has maintained a relatively low profile all tour.

Dhoni, despite striking rich with the bat, has been the face of India’s failure, having to answer questions day in day out to the media. Reuters

It looks all too familiar for Duncan Fletcher, who took over as England coach after they were knocked out in the group stages in the 1999 World Cup at home, only to see the Test team hold the wooden spoon a few months later. The boos at The Oval were directed at the entire England unit. For Fletcher, the only way was upwards. Twelve years later, he took over India after they were crowned world champions. The only way for him was downwards.

The current shambles may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Zimbabwean, as it gives more clarity to his job description, going forward. India’s situation mirrors England’s in 1999 in certain aspects, particularly with country-club loyalties and injury management. It seems surreal to comprehend that India are having to play catch-up so soon, having slipped in the rankings. Fletcher has experienced it before. Now, he has to start over.

While the players and the management will have to take collective responsibility for this disaster, in Fletcher’s defence, he never had the chance to settle into the job in the country that employed him. He has that opportunity now. His familiarity with Indian cricket, its structure and administration is perhaps best known to himself. Traditionally, the coach doesn’t wield the same kind of power in India as the captain or the selectors. If Fletcher wants to have his way, he has to challenge that.

It may be unrealistic to apply the English model in India, but it’s worth a try, provided it’s done with the best intentions. When Fletcher took over England, he was appalled that certain players showed greater loyalties to their counties. Players would show up the day before a Test absolutely knackered, arriving straight from county games. The existing system didn’t allow players sufficient rest before international games. The lack of focus dragged England down. Thanks to Fletcher, the arrival of central contracts changed that.

India faces a similar scenario with the IPL. The tournament has been a convenient scapegoat for all that’s wrong with Indian cricket. Players have been criticised for prioritising the IPL over India, and people will rush to bring up the case study of VirenderSehwag, who delayed his shoulder surgery till after his franchise was eliminated. I don’t want to jump the gun and question their loyalties, but players will need to be guided on taking decisions on how much to play, how long to rest and more importantly, when to say “no”.

Fletcher would stop at nothing to get players to sit out county games to rest ahead of a Test. He wasn’t the most popular man in the county circuit as a result, but his stubbornness worked for the best.If he can identify a pool of 20-25 players in India, he needs to ensure their workloads and fitness are maintained. Even if it means calling up Delhi Daredevils to inform that Sehwag’s shoulder needs a rest, then so be it. It’s a hard call to make, but someone’s got to do it.

If he prepares a dossier on each of those players, he needs to ensure the workloads are monitored whether during the IPL or the period after. It would help a great deal if the players have a minimum two-week window after the IPL to rest.

Fletcher also had the knack of identifying players with potential and pitching their names for selection, even if they didn’t have the weight of runs or wickets behind them. That’s how he identified players like Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan, who both served England with distinction. Nasser Hussain, the former captain, admitted that he hadn’t even heard of Trescothick till that point.

An allrounder like IrfanPathan could do with such encouragement. He looked in good rhythm in this year’s IPL and I understand he remarked that he never felt fitter. Unfortunately, he had no cricket to keep his batteries going. Fletcher could ideally step in in such a scenario and press for his selection for the Emerging Players series in Australia, or similar such tours. Not all gambles may work, but the coach may have to put his foot down to the selectors now and then.

The forthcoming home season will give him the chance to identify players with the temperament to survive international cricket. The question remains if he and the Indian cricket establishment can sing from the same hymn sheet, or work out a compromise without hurting anyone. Geraint Jones, the former England wicketkeeper, told me in April (after Fletcher’s appointment) that Fletcher’s biggest challenge would be adjusting to the free spirit of Indian cricket. His negotiation skills will be put to a bigger test in India.

Fletcher’s role may go far beyond overseeing nets sessions and fielding drill. He may be four months into the job, but his real work starts now.