Duncan Fletcher v Andy Flower: The clash of the summer

Not since the days of 2005 when Australia came to town has a visiting team been greeted by such a heightened sense of expectation and excitement since the arrival of this India team. While talk of this series defining who quite rules the cricketing landscape is perhaps justified (though South Africa may have something to say about that), it is the personnel clashes on both sides which make this clash such an appealing one.

The contests simply jump off the pages. The captains-conservative Strauss vs aggressive Dhoni, the flashing blade of Sehwag vs the efficient, less effervescent Cook, Swann vs Harbhajan, Tendulkar vs Pietersen and Anderson against Zaheer are just some of the clashes that run throughout both sides from 1 to 11. Yet the deciding clash of the summer could well be the one taking place off the field, that of Andy Flower against his predecessor Duncan Fletcher.

Comparisons between the two are obvious, both are Zimbabwean, both excelled as players (Flower more so), both are serious-minded, organised individuals who combine the technobabble of a business management mastermind with the cricketing nous of someone who has spent years learning and absorbing every nugget of information about their sport. If they are both seldom heard in public (not a bad thing in a coach), then when they do speak they mostly speak with great clarity and perception which provide a welcome contrast to the tired soundbites of most modern coaches. Not to mention both inspire great loyalty from their players, perhaps a key quality in any coach, as England players to this day count Fletcher as a friend as well as a mentor while also displaying a similar sense of respect for Flower.

Yet in some ways the comparisons can perhaps be overegged, for though they share much in common, the differences in styles remains marked. Fletcher for one in his time as England coach was against County Cricket and its demands on his players whereas Flower has positively embraced it as a means of developing players. Gone too is the protective bubble which surrounded England players under Fletcher protecting them from criticisms and potential damaging outside influences, instead replaced by a more open-minded, embracing and positive outlook from Flower who urges them to take criticism head on, take responsibility and approach every challenge as an experience to be enjoyed.

Meanwhile Fletcher’s technical analysis is perhaps more incisive and doubtless he will be aware of the varying weaknesses which exist in this England side which could give him an edge. Whereas by comparison the structure and organisation which Flower has built up in his three years as England coach provide them with a strong framework which has yet to fall down despite numerous challenges across the world. Though for that he must surely thank Fletcher who during his time as England coach putting the starting blocks in place.

They are two of cricket’s finest coaches, two men whose strengths far outweigh their weaknesses, and who share much in common but also whose differences mark them out as very much their own men. For all the qualities on show from both the English and Indian teams this summer, it could be the qualities of two Zimbabweans which could hold the key.

England vs Sri Lanka: An Australian kind of victory

At the start of the fifth day England were not supposed to win their Test against Sri Lanka, the rain was falling, the leader of their bowling attack was injured and frankly time was running out. Yet the fact they did it, maintaining their winning momentum from the Ashes, and took all ten Sri Lankan wickets in 24.4 overs was a remarkable achievement and one which kicked a key summer for this team into gear.

For whatever the criticisms of the Sri Lankan batting, which was always likely to struggle if Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene failed to fire, plenty of credit is due to England. Their bowlers followed up on the fine work of their batting line-up (three centurions-one with a daddy hundred, another with a grand-daddy) and exerted the kind of pressure which Sri Lanka’s bowlers failed to build up.

The steepling bounce and consistent length of Chris Tremlett was complimented by some wonderfully skillful spin bowling from Graeme Swann and a more consistent showing from Stuart Broad who was far more consistent with line and length second time round. There was no way out for the Sri Lankan batsmen, choked by the relentless pressure of England’s bowlers and the scoreboard and match situation. They had no hope of victory, and England exerting pressure, took the draw out of the equation.

It was a victory which had shades of the kind of disintegration which Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting practised at their height of dominance. Time after time, Australia’s stellar batting line-up would rack up substantial scores and then with the seam of Glenn McGrath, the pace of Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee and then the spin of Shane Warne. Ponting once remarked ahead of an Ashes tour: “Mental disintegration? That’s what it’s all about, really, trying to keep England under pressure from ball one of the series until the series ends. That’s what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on.”

For Andrew Strauss and the veterans of England’s 2006/2007 Ashes tour this will have brought back shades of their own collapse in Adelaide when Warne got into their minds and turned a seemingly inevitable situation around. Just as England then seemed destined for defeat once the collapse began, so Sri Lanka seemed destined for defeat here-the hunted had become the hunter.

England: And then there were three

As the old saying goes: “Three’s a crowd” so as England wake up to a new era containing not two but three captain’s it is certainly a momentuous occasion, indeed an unprecedented one in the history of English cricket.

Split captaincy has always been an uncomfortable notion for some captain’s to take, Nasser Hussain for one was set against it when Michael Vaughan took over, and it was little surprise when Vaughan succeeded Hussain as Test captain just a year after as Hussain felt the winds of change were blowing against him.

Of course the danger now is that Strauss may find himself threatened on not one front but two by this new development, if both Cook and Broad were to thrive and Strauss was to falter as Test captain.

Yet Strauss’ argument that dropping the ODI captaincy would help prolong his Test career made sense as did his argument that the World Cup is the natural end of the cycle for an ODI skipper-Ricky Ponting, Graeme Smith and Kumar Sangakkarra have all also moved on.

His record as Test captain is superb, and with victories at home and away in Australia, a draw in South Africa and an exemplary home record in Test matches it is worth sacrificing one role to help prolong arguably his most important one.

The decision to promote Stuart Broad is the most eye-catching, especially as Paul Collingwood’s record as T20 captain-a World Record run of victories and status as World Champions speak volumes. Yet Collingwood’s form with the bat has declined sharply and though he offered plenty in his bowling and fielding his faltering form became too hard to ignore.

Though Broad may a surprising choice, looking at the field of potential candidates it is perhaps understandable. Not withstanding Kevin Pietersen on the basis of past transgressions and Eoin Morgan for fear of overburdening a key cog in England’s middle order, Broad was the only one left. Furthermore he is likely to best represent the next generation of England T20 internationals such as Kieswetter, Stokes and Buttler-young, feisty and potentially explosive.

Perhaps the most controversial one is Alistair Cook as ODI skipper which was always likely to further cement Cook’s position as Strauss’ long term successor.

Many have debated the merits of Cook’s as an ODI batsmen (an average of 33 and a strike rate of 71 so far) and though his captaincy experience in Bangladesh was promising, he still lacks experience for a job which is likely to involve captaining an involving unit. Certainly Ian Bell who has experience in County cricket and a game well-suited to a place in England’s middle order, has a right to feel a touch aggrieved.

Yet the onus is on Cook to prove, like Strauss did before him, that he can push the boundaries of his game and, for want of a phrase, push the boundaries more. Cook’s success in Test cricket is built on patience and judicious selection outside off-stump and an ability to punish anything short or pushed onto his legs.

Improvements will have to be made but Cook will no doubt be aware of that, as will Flower and batting coach Graham Gooch. But if he wants a role model to base such improvements on then he could ask the very man he has replaced as ODI captain.

These are big calls from Andy Flower, three choices, three captains and three very different style of leaders whom he must deal with. Only time will tell if all three choices turn out to be the right ones.