IN his autobiography, Playing With Fire, Nasser Hussain said his greatest fear for English cricket was what would happen when Duncan Fletcher moved on. It is now more than six years since “the man behind the shades” parted company with the ECB, and many will find themselves experiencing a similar anxiety over the void that could be left by England’s latest enigmatic Zimbabwean coach.
Andy Flower took on the role in 2009, following the Peter Moores debacle, and was powerless to prevent England’s immediate capitulation in Jamaica, a result of frazzled minds and a lack of leadership. Since then Flower has overseen three consecutive Ashes victories and home and away series wins over India, either side of England’s rise to number one Test team in the world.
Like his predecessor, Flower has developed an inscrutable persona that gives nothing away and a protective shield around his close-knit group. As the press pack grows ever hungrier for a story away from the action, the vicious circle is squared. But Flower’s rare, brief and considered interviews often say more than endless hours of Sky Sports waffle and tabloid speculation ever could.
When the TV cameras caught up with him in the Oval darkness at the end of the fifth Test, as his players and their respective offspring cavorted and gurned their way across the outfield, Flower was his usual calm self. Paying tribute to his players and particularly his captain, he threaded some well-timed remarks neatly through the gloom up to the glowing media centre.
“There’s more to leadership than funky field placings and stuff like that,” he said. “I think Cook’s strong leadership was a key. The players need to trust and respect their leader. He is a man they all look up to and he has a certain conviction and inner strength that will serve English cricket well.”
Flower could just as easily have been eulogising himself. If Fletcher brought England out of themselves and taught them how to enjoy winning, with all the pedalos and open-topped buses that followed, Flower has moulded them into a mature, professional outfit with that “conviction and inner strength” that he showed himself so often as a player.
But how long will it last? Having relinquished control of the one-day side last year, reports are now suggesting Flower will quit for good after the Australian tour. When pressed on the issue during the Oval celebrations, he said simply: “We’ve got to enjoy the moment and not look too far ahead.” It was the diplomat’s response, the equivalent of the embattled MP’s “We’re doing all we can.”
It was not so long ago that English cricket fans, and moreover their representatives in broadcast and print, were simply happy to see their side winning. At the turn of the century, a 3-0 Ashes win would have been scarcely believable. On Monday several back pages chose to dwell on the bad light and inflexible umpiring that denied what would have been a hugely flattering 4-0 scoreline. The fact is, England are good, approaching very good, and have been so for quite some time now. Expectation levels have risen. Performance must follow suit.
If Flower does decide to hang up his laptop in a few months’ time, ideally toasting his departure with a fourth consecutive Ashes urn, he should be thanked and congratulated for all he has done. The ECB, now shorn of outgoing managing director Hugh Morris, will doubtless already be considering his likely successor.
Ashley Giles could take the logical step from one-day coach to full honours, but may be too inexperienced and lacking the toughness and spark required. Graham Gooch might stray the other way – a popular and familiar figure but could he innovate and bring a new approach?
From there the list of names roll off an increasingly familiar merry-go-round. Whatmore, Arthur, Buchanan, Kirsten – perhaps even a return for Fletcher himself. Whoever is chosen, if and when Flower steps aside, will have a tough act to follow. To call it a poisoned chalice would be misleading – the England coach would do well to drink from such a vessel as he ducks, dodges and dives to avoid the venomous darts coming at him from all angles. If one of them hits its target, he could always call for a review. But that’s another story.