The curtain has risen and thus resumes the final act of this epic tragedy – or comedy, depending on your perspective – at the last of England’s finest venues. If you’re an Indian cricket fan, this production has, quite frankly, sucked for a while. You might want to walk out already.
Or, chuck the hackneyed theatre metaphor and try a simile that a friend supplied: India’s coach, Duncan Fletcher, must feel as indignant as someone taken in by a Ponzi scheme. Is it that much of an exaggeration to say the team’s narrative of glory is beginning to resemble one?
We, Indian fans, are hot-headed and notoriously prone to extreme judgments, so I refuse to take that one seriously. Either way under the circumstances, whether or not India has in the long term flattered to deceive, you’ve got to feel for Fletcher. He knew the series against England was always going to be a challenging one. What few of us realized was how unchallenging it would prove for England.
Given the hectic schedule thrust upon the players these days – India is scheduled to play 90 Tests and more than 160 ODIs over the next eight seasons – it’s difficult to take form for granted. Still, if you inherited the finest Indian team in history, like Fletcher did, you would have every reason to believe you’d get at least a year to ease into the job.
Instead, India’s fall has been swift and spectacular, against the run of play though some would say this was bound to happen. The team was bound to collapse under the load, for a variety of reasons. The confidence gained from a World Cup win in sub-continental conditions cannot – and will not – translate into success on foreign soil.
What is the incoming coach’s part in all of this? His two-year tenure has begun poorly. The losses in England have been dissected in the popular press. Fletcher has remained phlegmatic through most of it, although he was moved to make a bizarre observation or two about the swinging conditions. It could be said that his insider status as a former England coach counted for nothing; that he may be clueless about the politics swirling around this Indian team. Even so, given how little match practice the side had coming into the Tests and the subsequent fitness issues that derailed the squad’s preparation, few are blaming Fletcher.
The Zimbabwe-born coach arrived in India with a fine track record and the explicit backing of Gary Kirsten – his former ward at the University of Cape Town and, later, colleague at Western Province, whom many regard as India’s finest coach ever. The presumption was that since Kirsten’s and Fletcher’s coaching styles were in sync – subdued yet firm – the latter would prove a good fit for India’s superstars.
The team didn’t need a change in direction; it needed someone to keep up the momentum.
We were familiar with Fletcher’s stance on this matter, well in advance. Writing in The Guardian a day before India went on to win the World Cup final against Sri Lanka, Fletcher expressed the forceful opinion that Greg Chappell was a good coach in the wrong job; one who had seemingly wanted to provoke Tendulkar to perform, whereas Kirsten was more likely to have a quiet word. Fletcher gave Kirsten – and seniors like Tendulkar and Dhoni – much of the credit for India’s success in the past decade.
Stroking a few egos is not such a bad move when you’re angling for the coach’s position yourself; even better, he seemed to firmly believe what he was saying.
But that was not the sole reason he bagged the job. The CV counts for something in the application process. Fletcher had had some excellent results while coaching England. When he took over in 1999, England was low down in the rankings, pretty much at the bottom. The coach must be given credit for reinvigorating his men, who went on to blank New Zealand and West Indies. During this phase England pulled off eight consecutive Test victories. He was at the helm when England won the Ashes in 2005 after nearly two decades.
Fletcher is an acknowledged master at taking underperforming sides and shaping them into world-beaters. But when you factor in the 5-0 pounding his men received from the Australians in 2007, you have to consider the disturbing possibility that Fletcher is prone to letting a champion side slip back into the shape of a pear.
With India seemingly in cruise mode, it seemed Fletcher simply needed to focus on man management. He needed to establish a rapport particularly with senior players and earn their respect so as to slowly gain the authority to rein in some of the more exuberant ones. Unfortunately he’s going to have to do some firefighting first. The coming months could prove extremely stressful.
The ironic thing about all of this is, despite having performed miserably in Test matches all year, Dhoni – one of the men Fletcher praised to the heavens – is not under that much pressure, really. His record might even absorb the brunt of another disastrous series in Australia. He’s not untouchable but his assorted successes have lent him an aura that has only barely diminished with his first series defeat.
Meanwhile over the next year Fletcher will get compared to every past coach, foreign and Indian. He is at the very least answerable to Kirsten’s apparition, to say nothing of the BCCI and countless disapproving fans. He must think, ruefully: did Kirsten really have to win nearly everything at stake, take India to the number one spot in Tests and then rub the World Cup trophy in everyone’s face like that?
Poor Fletcher: he had to hit the ground running, but the landing’s scorched his feet. The cricket coach increasingly reminds me of Mr. Weatherbee – the bumbling principal in those old Archie comics, who floundered often but strove manfully to do his duty.
The awful thing about the situation is of course that even if India wins the final Test nobody is going to pay much attention. It will be said England lacked the motivation to go for the kill. It is scary to imagine what might be said if India lose the series 4-0. On the other hand England’s dismantling of India holds a morbid fascination for our cricket fans; a draw at this stage would just about kill investment in Tests.
It is going to be hard to motivate the men for this last Test, but seeing how depressing things are – India is currently playing like Bangladesh, and I mean Bangladesh without Tamim Iqbal – perhaps Fletcher is the man for the job after all.