In the hot seat

India is the No. 1 Test side and the World Cup winner in ODIs. In how Fletcher inspires the side to retain its levels of intensity lies his biggest challenge, writes S. Dinakar.

In complete contrast to the chaos that preceded the appointment of Gary Kirsten as the coach of the Indian cricket team, the sequence of events leading to Duncan Fletcher being named for the top job was brief and clinical.

Ahead of the BCCI working committee meeting in Mumbai on April 27, there were few indications that this major decision would be arrived at. Speculations abounded and there were at least five names doing the rounds.

It was felt that India would zero in on a coach only midway through the tour of the West Indies, beginning first week of June. Under the circumstances, the swiftness with which the Indian Board acted surprised many.

Last time around, Graham Ford was chosen as India's coach, but he declined the offer once he journeyed back to London. It is believed that the soft-spoken Ford was undone mentally by the image of more than 50 media persons rushing towards him after he had completed his interview with the BCCI in Chennai.

It is possible, given Fletcher's rather uncomfortable relationship with the English media in the past, the BCCI wanted to avoid a repetition of la affaire Ford. Once the Board had made up its mind, it may not have wanted to take chances.

It is understood that Fletcher's name was proposed by Kirsten himself. The Board took the South African's view rather seriously since he had found the winning mantra for the Indian team in both Tests and ODIs.

It was believed, not without sound reasoning, that both the Board and the players were keen on someone whose methods were similar to that of Kirsten. The 62-year-old Fletcher fitted the bill.

Like Kirsten, Fletcher is not a coach who thrusts his views on the players. And he too is more of a back-room man who shuns the limelight. Fletcher is quietly efficient and attempts to convince players without dominating them.

India now has its fourth foreign coach after John Wright, Greg Chappell and Kirsten. Wright was rather firm with his ways and not soft as many believed him to be. During the early days of his tenure at least, he came down heavily on players on matters of fitness and discipline.

To his credit, Wright set in motion a process that would make the Indian team more professional in its thinking.

Tactically brilliant and with great insight into the dynamics of the game, Chappell was outstanding when it came to spotting and grooming young talent. He could size up a cricketer in a matter of a few deliveries and then hone his skills.

Not many comprehended the varying techniques of the game as completely as Chappell did. Never the person to hide his views, the often outspoken Chappell put himself in the firing line vis-a-vis the media.

During his tenure, it was Chappell's Indian team that won or lost and not Ganguly's or Dravid's side. That was the crucial difference between Chappell and the rest.

However, the Australian ran into man-management difficulties with a bunch of senior and influential players. After that, Chappell was a marked man.

Kirsten understood the Indian psyche better than Chappell. He backed the youngsters and motivated the seniors. Not surprisingly, he met with extraordinary success.

He was largely a players' coach and managed to get the best out of his men. Kirsten departed in a blaze of glory on an immortal night at the Wankhede Stadium when India topped the world.

Fletcher has big shoes to fill, but he has a lot going for him. Given prior commitments, he is unlikely to assist India during the tour of the West Indies but will guide the side against England in Old Blighty.

The taciturn Fletcher knows England well. After all, he was a path-breaking England coach between 1999 and 2007. During this eventful phase, England conquered new frontiers. The side registered its first Ashes triumph in 18 years in 2005. Against an Australian team that was still a formidable force, England bucked the odds. The side batted with determination and was fuelled by an exceptional pace force — led by the mercurial Andrew Flintoff — that could inflict damage with the new ball and then reverse the sphere to deadly effect.

Fletcher's hand was visible in some brave moves. For instance, the consistent and solid Graham Thorpe was discarded for the gifted Kevin Pietersen for the series against Australia.

Light of feet, Pietersen disrupted the Aussie plans and England made the elusive breakthrough in the game's oldest rivalry. That series actually marked the beginning of the Aussies' gradual decline.

Earlier, Fletcher had a key role in the development of two other game-changing cricketers, Marcus Trescothick and Flintoff. In fact, Trescothick was languishing in county cricket before he was summoned for bigger things by Fletcher.

Fletcher was fond of the ‘forward press' method while coping with spin and lost little time in advising the English batsmen to follow this ploy. His ‘one-on-one meetings' are now the stuff of legend.

He deserves credit for England's back-to-back Test series triumphs in Pakistan and Sri Lanka (2000-2001). There was a shift in the mind-set of the side. Instead of complaining against the conditions, the team now sought to conquer them.

England also notched up Test series triumphs in South Africa and the West Indies. These were significant achievements and the English side was now a potent force.

Along the way, Fletcher forged impressive partnerships with captains Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan. He earned respect for his tactical acumen.

In his playing days, Fletcher excelled in the role of an all-rounder for Zimbabwe. He was a forceful left-handed batsman and bowled probing right-arm medium pace.

The highlight of his career was when he captained Zimbabwe to a stunning upset over Australia in a group match of the 1983 World Cup in England. He led by example, scoring 69 not out and claiming four wickets for 42 runs.

Now, he is a coach with the hottest job in world cricket. India is the No. 1 Test side and the World Cup winner in ODIs. In how Fletcher inspires the side to retain its levels of intensity lies his biggest challenge.