And so, after seven and-a-half years in charge of England, Duncan Fletcher has resigned. There is a neat symmetry to his reign, in that it ended as it began, with humiliation against South Africa – England being 2-4 then being thrashed by nine wickets. In between, however, Fletcher has done a terrific job.
He benefited from being an outsider; this helped him judge county players on more than mere statistics. Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan and Paul Colllingwood were all plucked from the county scene despite having mediocre records. Fletcher recognised character was vital in developing international players, and placed great faith in those he recognised it in. Yet, in some cases, he found character where there was insufficient cricketing quality – think of Chris Adams, Anthony McGrath and a plethora of one-day also-rans.
Fletcher was meticulous in preparation and, in alliance with Nasser Hussain, began the tough job of restoring England’s credibility as a Test-match nation. An example of this was the enormous emphasis he placed on bowlers being able to bat, in a bid to end the phenomenon of the English collapse.
In the last Test of the pre-Fletcher era, England infamously had three number 12s – Alan Mullaly, Ed Giddins and Phil Tufnell. Choosing Ashley Giles over Tufnell, as he did with the exception of his first series, was characteristic of Fletcher. He had no qualms opting for the less naturally talented bowler, on the basis that he was also able to contribute with the bat and in the field, and was never liable to becoming difficult on arduous tours away from home. And this policy was vindicated as Giles became, in his understated way, an essential figure in the England run of success in 2004-05, culminating in an assured, Ashes-securing 50 at The Oval.
Yet Giles was also indicative of Fletcher’s stubbornness. The coach invariably stuck by players he rated through periods of lean form – Hussain averaged 12 over 10 Tests in 2000, failing to pass 25 in this time – but, by the end of his regime, this admirable policy of loyalty, so rare in previous England regimes, had turned to something dangerously like blind faith. The decision to turn back to Ashley Giles, a consummate professional but one who averaged over 40 with the ball, ahead of Monty Panesar, who had helped England win two of their last three Tests, for the ‘06/07 Ashes will forever be remembered as the moment when it was clear Fletcher’s time as coach was up.
Key to Fletcher’s success was his adaptability, which enabled him to develop exceptional working relationships with both Vaughan and Hussain, profoundly different characters. Hearing either of them say a bad word on Fletcher is almost as rare as the Zimbabwean smiling; yet there are some players who will be pleased to see him go. Think, especially, of Owais Shah, an outrageously gifted batsman who performed very well on Test debut in India but was never granted a reasonable run in either form of the game.
While the 2005 Ashes result is obviously the standout of Fletcher’s regime, the results he achieved in Asia were equally impressive. He was crucial in developing the forward press, which slowly helped eliminate English fear of the sub-Continent. Under his guise, England recorded back-to-back series wins in 2000/01, previously unimaginable.
This was primarily down to the exploits of stalwarts like Alec Stewart, Mike Atherton, Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Graham Thorpe - all of whom speak not a bad word about their former coach. The manner in which he reinvigorated experienced players was a hallmark of the early part of his regime. The Surrey left-handers Thorpe and Butcher, for instance, both averaged 14 more after their comebacks – Thorpe in 2000, Butcher in ’01.
Ultimately, the two primary failures of Fletcher’s regime were his inability to coax the relatively young ’05 side onto better things, and his aimless running of the ODI team. He never got to grips with the one-day game, using it to try out potential Test players, like Sajid Mahmood, even when they were patently unsuited to the shorter game, and employed an archaic top-order strategy in the 2007 World Cup.
Why have the 2005 side, with the exception of Kevin Pietersen, Matthew Hoggard and series failures Ian Bell and Collingwood, all declined since the spectacular triumph? Some of it may be down to the English psyche, but Fletcher’s loyalty and the “closed shop” that became the England set-up cannot have helped. While he was unquestionably able to get the best out of gritty performers like Butcher, Thorpe, Hussain and Collingwood, his man-management may come into question for his failure to keep Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison as the best players of the kind in the world for a sustained period.
By the end of his tenure, Fletcher’s strengths had become his weaknesses, and new thinking is now needed. Even if it may not seem so at present, English cricket is in an infinitely better state now than eight years ago, with central contracts introduced and the set-up far more professional and conducive to playing quality cricket.