India vs South Africa: Fletcher faces litmus test
Johannesburg: It`s nearly two years that India haven`t played a Test overseas and as they prepare to take on South Africa at the Wanderers on Wednesday, it will be a trial by fire for coach Duncan Fletcher, who has now come a long way from the team`s 0-8 result abroad.
The last Test India played on foreign soil was in January 2012, against Australia at Sydney. It was the last game in a long run of defeats away from home (England followed by Australia). There are not many coaches in world cricket who would survive an 0-8 blanking in overseas conditions but Fletcher did somehow. And now, it is easy to see why the team stands up for him. He is a father figure to these youngsters in the absence of senior, highly experienced players.
"Communication is very easy at the moment with youngsters in the side. Fletcher is obviously a go-to man. I can always go and speak to him about what he feels about my batting or whatever problems I am facing," said Cheteshwar Pujara ahead of his team`s practice sessions in Benoni.
The likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were complete coaching-manuals in themselves, given their experience and ability, an awe-inducing factor in the hearts of the young ones. It is a tad tough to imagine the trio speaking to Fletcher about their problems, if any. But with these young players, there is an obvious connect here.
A lot has changed in the last two years. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman have gone from the scene, unthinkable as it may seem. Even Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir no longer open the batting for India in any format, while Harbhajan Singh is miles away from the playing XI. Zaheer Khan is still around though.
But it can be said that the transition phase of Indian cricket is nearly over. It has been a painful process since that 0-8 defeat.
India lost 2-1 to England at home in 2011-12, an embarrassing loss that one, but recovered thereafter to beat Australia 4-0. On either side of those contests, they defeated New Zealand and West Indies, victories that were never in any real doubt.
If these 12 Tests in the past one year or so can be counted as progress, it is because of the young energy that has come into the eleven, and given the Indian team a new shape altogether. Pujara and Virat Kohli lead the batting. Rohit Sharma is slowly realising his place in the scheme of things, while Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay are the new openers. R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha are the spin twins of this chapter, while Ravindra Jadeja is the joker in the pack.
The pace bowlers continue to find their spots in the XI, as has been the case with Indian cricketer forevermore. Gaining in confidence was vital for these players. Considering where they were placed in their individual capacities a year back, it can be said that it was an integral part of this transitional process. At this juncture however, Fletcher needs to step in.
"No failure can be pinpointed upon the support staff," said Ashwin, in the build-up to the two-Test series versus South Africa.
"The team has to accept the failure as a lot rather than saying the coach has not had a great record and all that. We`ve not had a great record. We had poor tours of Australia and England but he (Fletcher) has always been on the mark in terms of arranging practice and in terms of what guys want, going to them, talking to them. He has wanted to make a difference.
"There are two things, wanting to make a difference and actually creating a difference. Creating the difference the player also needs to play a role. Fletcher has always wanted to be the difference that a player wants. He has never been shy of talking to anybody. He has never been shy of going and offering a new suggestion for somebody to change his game. It`s always up to the individual to take it or not," he added.
It shows in the way Fletcher prepares the players for practice and then leads them through.
At Benoni, on Friday when the two-day practice game was abandoned due to a wet outfield, Fletcher stood for two hours behind the nets as India`s first-choice batsmen took strike one by one. They were faced with a barrage of short stuff from Zaheer and Umesh Yadav. It was interesting to note the little chat Pujara had with the coach after his stint, following which he was shipped off to the nets` area to take more throw-downs.
On Saturday, a second day of practice at Benoni, it was a process reversed for Jadeja, as he came to bat last after a throw-downs` session. When Pujara was done, he and Fletcher walked off together, talking at lengths presumably about his batting.
"A person cannot go through the entire eleven players on the field and what`s going through their head. Support staff can definitely facilitate you from behind. Support staff`s role is always about creating a good environment.
"Having good facilities to practice and try and aid somebody who is going through a lean patch, and all that. On those regards Fletcher has never been short of what he has done. As players we have to accept the failure and say yes, we have failed as a group," said Ashwin.
The problem herein is that this Test series result could be seen as a double-edged sword. A loss will be regarded as just another step in the learning curve of a young team who are playing outside the sub-continent after a long time.
When you add the coach to this context though, with him steering the ship since 2011 World Cup, this is no longer a team in the making. This ought to be considered a near-finished product, achieved over two years, and one that will represent India in the many years to come.
For this is Fletcher`s biggest test yet, of what he has been doing behind the scenes for so long a period, a marker of what he has been able to create in the long time he has been afforded at the helm of this Indian team.