Fletcher got the outcome all wrong

Hidden by a pair of dark glasses even in the dimmest light — hence Behind the Shades, the title of his new book — Fletcher gave away information with all the willingness of a James Bond agent under torture. Over to Ted Corbett.

I first met Duncan Fletcher outside the England team hotel in Port Elizabeth during the 1999-2000 South Africa tour and thought him an affable man even though colleagues had warned me he might be difficult.

By the end of that day I knew what they meant. England had pulled off a noteworthy one-day win and when I found myself in the lift with their new coach I said: “Oh, hello. That has been a very satisfactory day for a new coach, hasn’t it?”

There was a pause that lasted all the way to the sixth floor. I thought perhaps he had not heard me but as I passed him he said, very softly: “Yes.”

“Well,” I thought, “there is a rum cove.” So Fletcher the Inscrutable turned out to be.

Hidden by a pair of dark glasses even in the dimmest light — hence Behind the Shades, the title of his new book — Fletcher gave away information with all the willingness of a James Bond agent under torture.

His press conferences were half hours of misinformation. He had no friends in the press box, he wore an expression that suggested he was offended by the very presence of reporters and the only phrase which seemed to come easily to his lips was: “It is very, very difficult.”

That phrase often applied to injured players, his decisions to keep some of his men out of their county teams — he did not have any friends in the counties either — or the problems associated with selection.

No-one can deny that at the height of his reign England won a string of Tests, recaptured the Ashes and rose to second place in the world rankings. Ten out of ten to Fletcher.

Failure at the one-day game, his strange reluctance to recognise who ought to be in the Test side on the last tour of Australia and a build-up of resentment about some of his high-handed selections brought his England days to an end.

Well, we now know what he was doing with all the information he failed to deal out in his seven-year stint as coach. He saved the spicy bits for his book when Behind the Shades turned out to be From Behind the Parapet.

His criticism of Andrew Flintoff in particular has raised a storm and one that makes it unlikely that Fletcher will ever be invited to take charge of any side in this country again. If his old side Glamorgan don’t want him that says it all about his popularity.

He says in his book — ghost written by Steve James, his captain at Glamorgan, now a full-time journalist — that Flintoff let him down in Australia and in the World Cup. This statement has brought howls of protest since Flintoff is just about the most popular sportsman in Britain, not just a much-loved cricketer.

Fletcher fails to realise two facts. One is that Freddie Flintoff could almost get away with murder in this country and be forgiven. The other is that if Freddie behaved wrongly — turning up for practice drunk in Australia according to Fletcher as well as performing his sinking walrus act on a pedalo during the World Cup — the time for Fletcher to act was immediately.

If he had sent Flintoff home for either offence the great British public would have understood. Flintoff has history of drinking and while we giggle behind our hands we know that he ought not to behave like a teenage kid and that one day someone is bound to punish him.

We rather enjoy the antics of rogues here, we relished the behaviour of Ian Botham in the days before he had chats with the Queen over a cup of tea and we kept peeping from behind the lace curtain to see if someone had caught up with him. Way back we loved Robin Hood evading the Sheriff of Nottingham, Dick Turpin galloping to York after a highway robbery, King Charles II hiding in an oak tree to escape during the Civil War and rather hoped the rascals would get away.

Instead of cracking down on Flintoff, Fletcher kept the offences quiet and chose to write about them for profit. In this country where kings can be rascals and rascals are sometimes kings of the moment — at least in the tabloid press — Fletcher got the outcome wrong.

We would have been happy for him to pack Flintoff off back to Lancashire; but we recognise the hypocrisy of doing nothing until it is time for the grand revelation in a book.

Of course Botham is now Sir Ian, tapped on the shoulder with the royal sword to mark down his charity work and he can do no wrong. He has kept his mouth shut in the face of Fletcher’s suggestion that he should not have taken Flintoff out before that practice in Australia; knights can afford to let their lances do the talking.

Geoff Boycott, who paused 24 hours before answering Fletcher, has made harsh and telling points about the duty of a coach to exert discipline or keep quiet. Boycott has also admitted he wishes he had waited a couple of years before he wrote a book about his fights with the Yorkshire committee and by doing so has kept a firm footing on the moral high ground.

Boycott demanded that Fletcher should go before the start of the Ashes trip to Australia and while his timing may have been poor his solution to England’s problems was exactly right.

He says he offered to meet Fletcher to see if they could work out a plan for England going forward but nothing came of that plan and so two of the most powerful men in the game were at loggerheads when a little consultation might have been for the benefit of England.

Boycott suggests that there should be a two-year gap between a tour and a book but there I am afraid he is being a trifle old-fashioned.

I believe that if an attempt to enforce such a ruling was taken to court it would be thrown out. A player’s human rights and all that; too modern for Fletcher and perhaps misplaced in sport which has a morality all of its own.

I have only one quarrel with Fletcher’s views. If it was appropriate to keep quiet about Flintoff at the time, it was also inappropriate to discuss it in a book six months later.

But then, as I discovered seven years ago, he is a rum cove who does not always understand the ways of the world, particularly in the 21st century.