Andy Flower, as the coach of the England cricket team, deserves the universal acclaim he has received, but just as Duncan Fletcher eventually left the same role among a tainted, rancorous atmosphere, I believe Flower’s time must come to an end: preferably after the Australia tour.
The title of my essay references a quote often exclaimed, but rarely with any understanding behind its employment. Medieval kings were said to be effectively possessive of two titles, of two substances almost: the king as physical reality, as a human being; and the symbolic title of ‘king’, as the divinely chosen representative of the nation they ruled: as being the nation. The sentence functions due to this dual meaning, when ‘the king is dead’, meaning the corporeal reality of the king’s physical existence, the second clause makes sense regardless, as the symbolic nature of the ‘king’ who represents the nation can never die: another will take up the mantle, and the land persists regardless of who wears the crown or sits on the throne.
Duncan Fletcher throughout the first half of the previous decade was a colossus: The man who restored pride to English cricket after a generation-long slump. The Ashes victory of 2005 was the pinnacle of his time in charge, as a young, beautifully balanced team executed plans to the utmost of their abilities, vanquishing an almost fabled Australian team of legends. Fletcher deserves every inch of type that speaks well of him.
But how did it all end for the quiet Zimbabwean?
A cricketing winter-of-discontent; a five-nil whitewash in Australia; a poor World Cup campaign; ‘Fredalo’ and strange selectorial decisions that hinted towards a man at the end of his tether, no longer with a finger on the pulse.
Duncan Fletcher left in the spring of 2007, soon to release an autobiography that revealed even more of the farcical events that dominated his last months in charge of the England side.
‘The king is dead; long live the king’.
Andy Flower took charge under even more farcical circumstances. With the Peter Moores-Kevin Pietersen leadership axis reaching fever point after just three Tests, the ECB steamed in, heads rolled. After an enthralling five Test match series defeat in the Caribbean, Flower got the gig; England won the 2009 Ashes series and began the climb toward the summit. 3-1 and 4-0 later, England held the Test Championship mace aloft, Flower and his captain Andrew Strauss triumphant.
Just as the ink had flowed and the laptops crackled for Fletcher’s team of 2005, Flower’s 2011 Test champions watched as their dreams of domination began to migrate from groggy heads to the back pages of the newspapers they read over morning protein shakes.
Nothing can last forever and things are ever changing. Time can be a bitch: there’s only ever too much of it or too little. In the UAE, England discovered in the ugliest of manners the tempestuous nature of sport. A hungry Pakistan team ran circles around the leaden footed English: forget Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran, this was Leonard vs. Eric Pickles. Destruction. 3-0.
But we all hoped it would be a lapse, besides, no Western team conquers the Asian dust-tracks right? We did manage to claw back and keep the number one spot by levelling the following series 1-1 in Sri Lanka after all; Just a lapse.
England vs. South Africa in the summer of 2012 saw the two undoubted best teams in Test cricket line up against each other. It was to be a series to remember. Instead, England looked out-powered and out-thought, utterly destroyed in the first Test at the Oval. In the second Test match, Kevin Pietersen launched an attack on the cricketers he had grown up with. His 149 belies description.
But then we had the ‘it’s difficult being me in this dressing room’ conference and tales of texts and treachery. Andrew Strauss felt undermined by Pietersen purportedly sending unflattering texts about him to some of the South African players. The ‘KP’ thing had been boiling for some time. Pietersen had been expressing frustration over the bloated international schedule and apparently wanted to give up ODIs, but continue T20s. Andy Flower took umbrage at this, with a supposed agreement that players should make themselves available for every format. A very strange policy, when one considers that some of the best players in the world, including Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and Michael Clarke had all retired from a format (T20) in order to prolong their ODI and Test careers.
It is difficult to deny that Kevin Pietersen is often selfish and arrogant; but it is even harder to argue that his dissatisfaction over the inability for English players to exploit the IPL window and the over-saturated fixture list is a worry without some considerable substance.
Flower and Strauss played their card: Pietersen was left out of the deciding Test match, one that they might not have lost were he playing. One will never know how much the Pietersen issue affected Strauss’s decision to retire from cricket following the series defeat and subsequent surrender of the Test Championship mace, but it can be considered as a symbolic moment: the one that chinks first began to show in Andy Flower’s armour; that doubts began to arise.
The issue that has caused me to completely lose faith in Andy Flower’s leadership has been the on-going treatment of Nick Compton. Nick Compton, we now know, has not even been included in the squad announced for the first Test in Nottingham; judging by the faith Flower and company have in Joe Root, it is likely that – barring injury – Compton may never feature again in Test cricket. Now Joe Root is clearly the future of English cricket: he is monstrously talented and so assured that he must be considered a future captaincy prospect and Jonny Bairstow is also a player of great potential; promoting a 22 year old with such promise ahead of a 30 year old who has had a less impressive beginning to his international career, on paper, seems a sensible choice.
But regardless of all this, if Nick Compton’s future was viewed upon as so unstable, so short-term and easily terminable, why even bother using him as an opener over England’s previous nine Test matches? Why not employ Root in this position before you throw him into the intense cauldron of an Ashes series, where the press will magnify his every mistake; leap upon each technical or mental flaw? Nick Compton did bat poorly against the Kiwis in England, but so did Ian Bell (a man with one Test century in his previous nineteen matches), and Jonny Bairstow is yet to reach the century milestone that Compton clocked in consecutive away Tests, his first of which came about in the most intense of match situations.
If Flower’s reason for dropping Compton is that he did so with the long-term prospects of the side in mind: then he has wasted the last half a year, psychologically damaged and alienated Nick Compton and also stocked a huge amount of un-needed pressure onto England’s finest young player.
The cracks began to show in the UAE and Flower’s mis-management of Pietersen and Compton suggests that the united dressing room that swept all others on their way to the number one ranking is not quite as harmonious as it once was. The introduction of a job-split with Ashley Giles minding the limited overs formats occurred nominally to allow Flower to focus exclusively on coaching the Test side. But cricket, unlike other sports has a chequered history with job-shares across formats, with this progression, Flower’s future came under more scrutiny than it had before as followers of the sport began to wander: what would happen if Giles’ side succeeds while Flower’s fails?
Andy Flower is the most successful coach in the history of English cricket, and deserves every reward and fine word he has received; but no one man is bigger than the game in this country.
‘The king is dead; long live the king’.