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By Suresh Menon
After the experience with Greg Chappell, it is understandable if the Board of Control for Cricket in India suggested to Duncan Fletcher – a suggestion buttressed by the reported million-dollar pay cheque – that he should be wary of opening his mouth. Fletcher might have smiled secretly to himself at this, for he was never one to open his mouth anyway.
Temperamentally he is a back-roomer, working best with strong captains who execute the team plan; a consultant rather than a ring master. He learnt early the advantages of keeping the media at arm's length; during a series in South Africa, when he was criticised for giving the England players a break, he wrote, “But I think I won some respect from the players because I stood by my beliefs and did not bow to media pressure.” But he was inscrutable even then.
In 2005 Scyld Berry wrote in The Telegraph, “Even when he removes his sun glasses, Duncan Fletcher does not give much away. In public England's coach is so inscrutable that he makes the Sphinx look like (the great mime artiste) Marcel Marceau.”
Seven years later, Marceau's reputation is in no danger from Fletcher. But back then, Fletcher was in the process of taking an England team residing at the bottom half of international rankings to an Ashes win and paving the way for their climb to number one. In India, it has been the reverse. He has overseen the world's number one team lose every Test in England and Australia. And in the Twenty20 World Cup, it has been yet another year outside the semifinal.
Yet, amazingly, no questions are being asked of the coach. Such is the power of silence. Fletcher has escaped scrutiny and criticism, which is strange in sport where managers and coaches, especially high profile ones are constantly reminded that with power comes responsibility. This means either that the authorities don't think the coach is important or the coach has little to do with the way India have been playing since he took over. Neither is a happy alternative.
To be fair to Fletcher, when he took over India were on the top, and had just won the 50-over World Cup. It was an ageing team, and there is only one way to go from the top. He was in a no-win situation.
India have worked best when the coach and captain have forged a strong relationship. Like Sourav Ganguly and John Wright – although, Wright, knowing which side his bread was buttered focussed on not rocking the boat. Fletcher worked best with Nasser Hussain, and would have found in Mahendra Singh Dhoni a similarly strong-minded personality, although with the Indian, some of the conclusions may not have been arrived at from a purely cricketing perspective.
Had Greg Chappell been in Fletcher's place, there would have been calls for his head long before this. I have said this before: Chappell was more Indian than Indian in the manner of playing favourites, using the media and indulging in the kind of politics that has kept Indian coaches away from the top job. Fletcher hasn't rubbed either the BCCI or the media the wrong way – but neither has he done anything spectacular. And in the end, a coach must be judged by results.
To lose eight Tests in a row and finish poorly in the T20 World Cup (however you might sweeten that pill by saying India won four of five matches) might have spelt the end of most coaches. Like players, they are only as good as their last performance, and Fletcher's last few performances haven't been up to scratch.
It is possible that many of the plans that Fletcher introduced in England – like his insistence on placing the country above club or county – were rejected outright by the BCCI which kowtows to the corporates and the players and is therefore unwilling to see the big picture. No coach, foreign or Indian can hope to change a system that is too well-entrenched, too much in thrall of money and political power and too fuelled by interests outside of cricket.
Perhaps Fletcher deserves our sympathy and not marching orders. But at least one of two questions must be answered sayisfactorily: why bother to appoint a coach and pay him a huge salary if he has no role to play? And, why would a coach of Fletcher's stature allow himself to be used thus? Maybe there are a million reasons for the latter.