‘Welcome back, Dav’
Duncan Fletcher’s appointment as coach of India will have raised a few eyebrows, not for the choice of successor to Gary Kirsten (after all, if a protégé of the Zimbabwean can lead India to the No 1 Test ranking and a World Cup triumph what might the man himself achieve?) but for the new-found Mountie-like efficiency with which the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) got its man in under four weeks.
Four years ago it was a very different story. In April 2007, after India had crashed out of the World Cup in the opening group stage, Greg Chappell, former Australia captain and author of Coaching: The Making of Champions, finally admitted defeat in his efforts to put that title into practice with India and resigned as coach.
The BCCI talked about finding a high-profile replacement and then, after two months of what one assumes was careful consideration, drew up a short list – a very short list – comprising the names of Graham Ford, the former South Africa coach, and John Emburey, then enjoying an unspectacular reign as director of cricket at Middlesex.
After the Board had shown familiar powers of organisation by bringing the two men from London to Chennai on the same flight, extending to the best part of a day that potentially awkward period where candidates wait together before being interviewed, the two-horse race went to form and Ford was offered the job.
He returned to England to seek a release from his contract with Kent, only to decide there was still work for him to do in the Garden of England. Emburey did return to India in 2008, but only to coach Ahmedabad Rockets in the now defunct Indian Cricket League – remember that? – and not the national team.
It was not until December 2007 that the untried Kirsten was appointed, and another four months before he officially started. In the meantime, India had played 12 Tests, winning series in Bangladesh (under Ravi Shastri) and England (under Chandu Borde, note that name now, pub quiz specialists), and at home to Pakistan, before losing 2-1 in Australia.
There was also the small matter of 34 one-day internationals and the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa, which, to their own surprise, they won.
Where Chappell had failed by trying to stamp his personality on an India side under the influential captaincy of Sourav Ganguly, Kirsten succeeded by redefining the role as a supporting one, staying in the background and going about his business in the same determined but unfussy manner with which he had accumulated 7,289 Test runs for South Africa.
So Fletcher comes to the position with the advantage of having had predecessors who are near-textbook examples of how and how not to make it work.
The new man’s track record bodes well for India. It is debatable which ranks as a greater achievement, bringing the County Championship to Glamorgan in 1997 or restoring England’s spine to such an extent during his eight years as coach that they rose from last to second in the Test rankings.
Methodical and resourceful, Fletcher, who has signed a two-year deal, faces the challenge of trying to retain top spot and improve India still further while the team contemplate losing much of their own spine, with older stars such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman edging towards retirement. It is doubtful that Fletcher will echo the view Kirsten expressed in a report in 2009, when the South African admitted to encouraging sex before matches.
Fletcher wrote incisively during this year’s World Cup for The Guardian, predicting at the outset that India and Sri Lanka would reach the final and, when that outcome materialised, correctly forecasting an Indian victory.
He had a closer view of India’s previous World Cup success, in 1983, when Zimbabwe twice played them in the group stage (even then the tournament’s format was unwieldy.) As captain, Fletcher will have been rubbing his hands at Tunbridge Wells when India slumped to 17 for five, only for Kapil Dev to make an unbeaten 175 and India to win by 31 runs.
Kapil clearly made more of an impression on Fletcher than the other way round. The greatest all-rounder in the history of Indian cricket has echoed the sentiments of the country’s second greatest batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, in calling for an Indian to be appointed coach. “Who is Duncan Fletcher?” he asked in the Hindustan Times newspaper. “That [the World Cup] happened almost 30 years ago. I don’t remember much of him as a player. I would like to see Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh as coaches of the Indian team. They did a great job at the T20 in 2007.”
Back in 1983, when Kapil wasn’t noticing Fletcher, Zimbabwe had not yet been granted Test status and Fletcher still had a day job in systems management; famously he devised his country’s car registration system. After moving into coaching, he had success with Western Province in South Africa, where he and Kirsten crossed paths, before Glamorgan and England came calling.
If regaining the Ashes in 2005 was the pinnacle of his time with England, surrendering them in a 5-0 defeat 18 months later was the low point. The 2007 World Cup campaign, where England’s hopes sank like a holed pedalo, marked the beginning of the end of his reign.
Fletcher resigned in the same month as Chappell and has since had short-term roles with Hampshire, South Africa (twice) and New Zealand. Prior commitments mean he will not be in charge for India’s three-Test series in the West Indies starting in June, so he will take the reins for the series against England that begins at Lord’s on July 21, when he will pit his wits against countryman Andy Flower.
On the previous occasion he reported to headquarters for his first day in a new job, in 1999, Fletcher was not a wholly familiar face in this country and an ECB official greeted him with the words “Hello Dav”, having mistaken him for the Sri Lanka and Bangladesh coach of that name. Fletcher has long since achieved recognition and a warmer welcome surely awaits him on his return. Unless Kapil is there, of course.