What an incredible two days. Ages ago I was approached by the Kent Park Taverners, the Johannesburg equivalent of the Lords Taverners, to assist with a charity fund raising event. It was planned as a breakfast at the Wanderers Golf Club and the guest of honour was to be the former England and Indian cricket coach Duncan Fletcher.
The breakfast was to take place on the morning of the first day of the Wanderers Test against India. I was to interview the legendary coach in front of a sizeable and knowledgeable audience that included a number of former international cricketers. In order to get to know Duncan, my wife, Jennie, and I had dinner with him the night before. I was a bit nervous as he has a reputation for being very serious and, shall I say, not exactly being in love with people associated with the media. The dinner and the event passed off well. I now have a totally new understanding of cricket, coaching, man management and public image. It was an incredible experience.
There is a problem describing it because the dinner and the breakfast were declared off the record. This was done to encourage candid questions and answers and to avoid PR puffery. So there is much that cannot be revealed but, definitely, some general aspects that can.
First, coaching a top cricket side must be the hardest job in sport. Bar none. In most team sports the collective aspect is paramount. Individual performance is, to a large degree dependant on the efforts of the other players. A fly half cannot dictate unless his pack wins the ball and he is served by his nine. Lionel Messi cannot score hat-tricks unless he is passed the ball by his team mates. In cricket there is unique creative space for the brilliant but weird individual. The batsman who is selfish, arrogant and hated by all, might be the key player. A bowler might be a match-winner but, in the dressing room, might be negative to the point of insanity.
Cricket, in some countries is way more than a sport and the top players resemble gods not sportsmen. Different regions move in and out of dominant influence and this can all affect selection. Captains and coaches vary hugely in terms of approach and personality. What works for one team and country most certainly does not for another. The spectre of illegal gambling is always present around cricket. It is rarely mentioned but it is there like an unwelcome odour. There are so many variables across the cricketing world. The coach has to deal with it. It is a minefield like no other.
Underpinning it all is the media and how it presents a team and its players to the world. Time and again we heard of players who are seen to be superstars and popular beyond belief and yet, in the team are unpopular to a degree that is amazing. Some of the outwardly grumpy ones are the popular, fun, influencers in the dressing room. Some of the heroes are out and out bastards. No names, no pack drill but some of the examples were very surprising. Duncan said that he reckons the public images of 60% of international cricketers bear no resemblance to the real people.
How does a coach go about changing the technique of a top player who is out of form? Imagine it. The player is at his wits end but has achieved so much. To change a technique might risk the future and career of that star or save it. Fletcher says that before such a step might be attempted the player should ask at least three times the question “Why?”. Walking on eggshells isn’t in it?
The most fascinating part, for me, was when the coach talked about detecting weaknesses in top opposition batsmen. He regaled us with a couple of Australian examples. He detected technical flaws in Adam Gilchrist and David Warner. He described the setting of plans and how, if the bowlers got it right, those plans were vindicated. The level of detail was extraordinary. He also spoke about good plans that didn’t work due to the failure of bowlers or captains to implement them.
Before becoming a full-time professional, Duncan Fletcher was a systems man who was largely responsible for designing a whole new car registration system for a country. He was also part of a team that redesigned and streamlined a complex insurance payment system. Before our meetings his training for a future cricket coach seemed, somehow, comical. After them it now seems ideal. Systems and analysis are key. The question then is man, or star, management.
Duncan Fletcher is not interested in coaching kids. He polishes diamonds. He is not interested in coaching full time again. If I were running a top cricket side I would try and get him involved in some sort of consultancy work. Maybe to mentor young coaches.
What an incredible two days.