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Hands-on coach on backfoot

After forgettable England tour,Duncan Fletcher under pressure ahead of his first series in India

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Hyderabad |
October 14, 2011 1:29:27 am

They call him Mr. Grumpy,and with good reason. The man with the pronounced jowl hardly ever smiles. Those close to Duncan Fletcher,however,insist on the burly Zimbabwean possessing a dry sense of humour.

To be fair to India’s coach,he’s hardly had much to smile about over the last three months,the period that saw India touch a new low in England. A lot has changed since the time Fletcher landed at London’s Gatwick Airport along with the Indian team after a fairly successful trip to the Caribbean in mid-July.

Back then,he was in-charge of a team on top of the cricketing world and was working in cohorts with a captain who held the reins of the reigning World Cup,IPL and Champions League champions,not to forget the No.1 Test team in the world. But the plunge from those lofty heights has been dramatic.

Question marks

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For starters India haven’t won an international match for 112 days. Within six months of his tenure,not to forget one disastrous outing in England,the cynics — and there are plenty of them surrounding Indian cricket — have already begun questioning whether Fletcher was indeed the suitable replacement to the all-conquering Gary Kirsten.

And as he stood clasping the net and peering at his wards go through their routines on Thursday on the eve of his first match as coach on home soil,the furrows only seemed to have grown denser on Fletcher’s poker-face. He will be aware though that a win in the five-match ODI series will certainly provide some sort of a balm to his and Team India’s damaged egos.

Not surprisingly,Fletcher was a very busy man during his team’s practice session for Friday’s clash at Uppal,which will be the world champions’ first home fixture since that memorable April 2 night at Wankhede Stadium. Always a believer in having one-on-one sessions with his players,he sauntered around the practice area,either making precise suggestions or just having brief chats with the lot — the lengthiest being the one with skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Despite some notable absentees,the batting will not provide him with too many headaches,especially not on the placid wicket expected at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium on Friday. Incidentally,he is yet to work with a full-strength Indian team in any of the three formats.

The makeshift pair of Parthiv Patel and Ajinkya Rahane had ensured that India at least played out the mandatory first powerplay without any casualties,in every single innings but one during the 3-0 drubbing in England. And the Indian conditions will provide them a grand opportunity to strengthen their positions in the team. While Gautam Gambhir’s return will buoy the top-order,the middle-order led by Dhoni should find little trouble in continuing with the destructive form they displayed in England.

Bowling worries

The lack of experience in the bowling,however,will be Fletcher and the team management’s major worry. To say that India will be fielding a new-look bowling attack at Hyderabad will be quite an understatement. Not many would have expected Praveen Kumar and Ravichandran Ashwin to lead the pace and spin departments respectively just six months after the World Cup final. And it was noticeable that the Indian coach had to spend more time monitoring his bowlers compared to the batsmen. All five quickies were put through the paces for lengthy periods under the hot Hyderabad sun,and with Praveen Kumar and Vinay Kumar most likely to play,the choice for the third-seamer could well be between the raw pace of Umesh Yadav and the wily left-arm medium-pace of Sreenath Aravind.

The Zimbabwean on the other side of the fence,however,has nuisances of a different nature. With a number of his players having made an impact in the two practice matches at the same venue,Andy Flower and his England team are spoilt for choices in both batting and bowling departments with the likes of Jonathan Bairstow and Scott Borthwick having made definite claims for a spot in the final XI.

Fresh from having received a distinguished honour in his adopted country,the OBE,Flower has enjoyed a remarkable run at the helm of English cricket in the last 12 months. An ODI series triumph in India-a feat not achieved by many teams-will be the perfect icing on the top.

Such is the baffling structure of the ICC rankings,that India have slipped to No.5 in the ODI rankings,a spot below England,less than six months into their reign as world beaters,despite having won one of two series in the interim. But there will be more than rankings on Fletcher’s mind,however.

Starting with a win at Uppal-considered a jinxed venue for any team calling it home-overall success in the coming two weeks,will definitely redeem Fletcher’s reputation,even if it does not put that elusive smile on his face.

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