Lockdown Leaders: No.2 – Duncan Fletcher

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In a previous blog I referred to there being three people in sport to whom I looked up and learned from as leaders. None of the three were flawless. But they each demonstrated, to me at least, so many of the traits and behaviours that I consider so important in anyone in charge of a group of people. I focused on Mike Brearley a few weeks ago. Today it’s the turn of former England and India – and, I’m proud to say, Glamorgan Cricket – Head Coach, Duncan Fletcher.

It’s impossible to do the man full justice in a relatively short and personal piece like this. I was lucky enough to work with ‘Fletch’ for a few years in the late ‘90s and to get to see how he operates, how he makes people tick, the principles he believed in and the values he held to. But many of the stories and analogies will have to wait for the book, if you can bear to hang on that long…

After drifting through the 1970s and 1980s without coming close to requiring a new trophy cabinet Glamorgan started to produce a decent team in the early 1990s. There were a whole host of factors: Tony Lewis’s appointment as Chairman; a clear strategic focus on developing young Welsh cricketers; Alan Butcher’s appointment as Captain; and the emergence of a crop of very talented players through the Glamorgan Colts side which played in the South Wales Cricket Association. The likes of Steve James, Adrian Dale, Tony Cottey, Steve Watkin, Robert Croft and David Hemp all came through that route, and when added to established quality such as Hugh Morris, Matt Maynard and Colin Metson, a proper side started to emerge, one which, with Viv Richards as overseas player, finished third in the County Championship and won its first-ever one-day title in 1993 under Morris’s captaincy.

But there things stalled a little. We didn’t kick on immediately. The club had never employed a full-time coach up to the mid-1990s, Glamorgan legend Alan Jones instead taking the role of Senior Coach, focusing primarily on the development pathway but occasionally working with the first team. At that point it was felt we weren’t getting the best out of the players we had and the decision was taken to bring someone new in for the summer of 1997, by which time Maynard had replaced Morris as Captain.

OK, so enough of the historical padding. What was it about Duncan’s character and leadership qualities that set him apart?

I’d love to lay claim to being the one who recommended him as Coach. But I wasn’t. I’d seen him play. As a drunken student at Nottingham Trent University in 1983 I’d been at Trent Bridge to see him win the Man of the Match award in a Zimbabwe/Australia World Cup game. But I don’t remember him. Or indeed anything about the game. And I had nothing to do with recommending him. It was the then Cricket Committee Chairman, Hugh Davies, who championed his appointment. He’d seen the way Fletch had looked after the South Africa ‘A’ side touring the UK in 1996 and had been impressed. I dealt with the contractuals and liaison with his home state back in South Africa, though, and quickly became impressed with him myself. A man of few words, very guarded and careful, he was very precise in terms of what he wanted, which above all was a clarity of role and where his lines of responsibility were, rather than worrying about anything to do with finances. That bit was easy. Duncan was more interested in understanding where his authority, and that of the captain, would start and end.

Very early in 1997 it became clear that Fletch wouldn’t brook any interference. He used me as a buffer to the Cricket Committee, arguing – not unreasonably – that I was his boss and that whilst happy(ish) to talk to Hugh and other committee members, he preferred to answer to me and otherwise be left alone to get on with things. He was comfortable justifying progress to a committee periodically but not after every match, an environment which, although changing, existed in county cricket in the mid-‘90s. He enjoyed a particularly healthy relationship with our Club Chairman David Morgan, built on mutually shared values of trust and respect. Not to mention a love of red wine, which would certainly have helped them both.

I first met him on a cold, damp early April dawn that year in the glamorous surroundings of the arrivals hall of Heathrow Airport Terminal 1. Rather than send someone else, I felt that our first full time Head Coach deserved to be met in person by the Chief Exec. You know when you meet someone and you almost instantly know that you’re going to work well together? It doesn’t happen all that often but this was one of those instances. A few guarded introductions and a few words of small talk about the weather and the flight, and I was wondering whether he actually talked at all. But once we were in the car and he had a coffee in his hand, he didn’t stop asking questions: about Matt; about each of the players; about the committee; about the structure of the business; about the pitches; the practice facilities; our other coaches, John Derrick and Alan Jones; about the performance pathway; Glamorgan’s history – you name it, he wanted to know about it.

I assumed he would be like that with everyone. But beyond Matt, David, our Physio Dean Conway and myself, I’m not sure he opened up fully to too many. He was very wary. He judged which people he needed to have a close relationship with and kept it at that, something he took into his subsequent role as England Coach in 1999. Many of the national press gave him stick for being aloof, arrogant even, but by then I knew the way he operated. He was very careful not to let too many people in and I respected him for that. What his critics didn’t appreciate was that when he did let you in, he was a warm, gregarious character. But if you didn’t fit in, the shutters came down. He was quick to judge and rarely changed his view of you.

Duncan spent the three weeks of pre-season ensuring he had John Derrick and Alan Jones onside, which he needed to do, and quietly assessing each of the players. Matt even asked me at one point if we’d not just signed a mute. But he was simply eyeing everyone up, trying to establish what made each person tick. We normally tried to send the squad away for pre-season but for 1997 we didn’t. They had a few days up in Brecon but otherwise it was net practice in Cardiff and internal matches only. We were fortunate that the weather throughout was glorious. He had 20 days to get to know everyone and he used every one of them wisely.

He took a few big decisions early on. The first choice wicket-keeper Colin Metson was left out of the Championship side for the first game, much to the chagrin of Hugh Davies and others on the committee, as well as some of the members and supporters, one of whom wrote to me every week (I kid you not) complaining that Metson should be playing rather than his replacement Adrian Shaw, who was a better batsman and judged to be a better team man. Even as the team was winning matches and competing at the top of the Championship table, still he wrote. He even sent a letter after the team had won the County Championship title that September, to the effect that they would have won it sooner had Metson, and not Shaw, been in the side.

Fletch also granted our overseas player Waqar Younis a bit of latitude. Waqar was a phenomenal fast bowler, who dovetailed superbly with Steve Watkin and Darren Thomas, but Fletch and Matt understood that the optimum way to get the best out of him was to cut him some slack, particularly in terms of timekeeping, and Waqar responded. There was a logic to Fletch which I really enjoyed. Even in decisions that I thought were a wee bit irrational and instinctive, he would always provide you with an argument. He was very happy to debate. But he would rarely change his mind once it had been made up. Selection had been the purview of a group of off-field selectors for much of the 1980s and early ‘90s and there were still committee members who wanted a say in which players took the field. Duncan’s appointment, and the way he worked with Matt, enabled us to start putting that antiquated system firmly to bed.

At the start of the 1999 season, which Glamorgan opened up in Derby, Matt and Fletch picked David Harrison ahead of Owen Parkin, who had been on the pre-season tour to Cape Town. They reasoned that he had bowled better in the Cardiff nets leading up to the game and that he was a better horses-for-courses selection for that particular match. ‘Parky’ wasn’t happy. But not nearly as unhappy as Hugh Davies, who insisted on driving all the way up to Derby to speak to the pair. One of Fletch’s defences was that the last team the two of them had selected had won the County Championship title. He put his foot down as far as selection was concerned, which he reasoned should always rest with the Captain, using the Coach as his primary sounding board. They were the professionals. It was their necks on the line. They got their way. They knew what they were doing. And the fact that the team they were helping to pick was winning meant it was difficult to argue with.

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There were five leadership qualities I particularly admired in Duncan: integrity; loyalty; clarity; judge of character; and consistency.

To many, as I have said, he was more than simply guarded. He was impenetrable. But I never found that. I trusted him and I knew he trusted me. It was how he operated. He recognized that there were some relationships he needed to make work: Coach and CEO was one of them. That we happened to get on well helped both of us. But you had to earn his trust.

I think it’s one of the character traits his players liked most in him. He would challenge them, ask questions, get them thinking about their game, their performances, what they were contributing to the team – on and off the field. Not for him an over-emphasis on coaching, though he enjoyed that side of things and loved nothing better than spending time with someone one-to-one – or indeed an argument with a player about a particular aspect of their technique. But it was always with the aim of getting them to think about their approach.

He would keep his distance, as any leader of a group should do, and he taught me much about when to socialize and when not to. There were a couple of occasions that summer – Liverpool during a particularly rainy four-day game with Lancashire was one – when he really let his hair down. Blackpool in 1999 was another. Perhaps it was the North West generally, who knows?! But it was rare. However, because he had the trust of his players, they enjoyed seeing that side of his personality occasionally and it spawned a positive reaction. He was one of them, but apart. A difficult tightrope to walk, that.

That Blackpool trip showed me something about how he’d mix playfulness with discipline. The team used to arrange a group meal on one evening of every away four-day trip and the appointed ‘dick of the day’ would have to sport a garish Hawaiian shirt all evening (Alun Evans on this occasion, if memory serves). The organized entertainment in Blackpool included a pre-dinner squad outing to the town’s Pleasure Beach and a quick run out on the ‘Big One,’ the famous rollercoaster. Three players turned down the opportunity to participate, which was of course their right, but in doing so they knew they would have to face a forfeit. What would it be? A fine? Or another formal punishment? No, they ended up having to do a three-way ‘pat-a-cake’ in front of the Lancashire members in the pavilion the following morning as the teams came out onto the field for the start of play. Fletch, like Matt and Dean, were strict about team values and rules but they also wanted the players to have fun. Even when they were being disciplined. It was about the team.

The Liverpool story? Well, you’ll have to wait for the book for that one…

Once earned, that trust inspired a fierce loyalty. There will have been players Fletch has coached over the years who perhaps wouldn’t share that view. Metson would probably be one. There would be a few disgruntled England players too. But from the vast majority who played for Fletcher – most of the Glamorgan lads in those two seasons, his Western Province players such as Gary Kirsten and Jacques Kallis, M S Dhoni and the Indian team, and England skippers such as Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan – all you generally hear is praise. And he would defend them. That’s how he worked. Any criticism was delivered quietly, away from the limelight, and always built on respect.

One of my favourite moments from that summer of 1997 – and there were dozens of them, honestly; it was the highpoint of many a county career, including mine – came at the start of a weekend day’s play in Swansea in mid-season. As pre-match practice finished I saw the players arrange themselves in formation, in two lines, with Fletch at a distance, waving his arms and laughing. On inquiring what on earth that had all been about I was told that they had been standing to observe a minute’s silence in memory of the South African rugby union team, which had just lost the home series to the British Lions. Fletch loves his rugby. That would have hurt. But he would have loved that reaction.

He was an excellent judge of a cricketer. The story of him as newly-installed England Coach referring back to an innings he’d seen Marcus Trescothick play for Somerset against Glamorgan is pretty well known. He also stuck his neck out for Michael Vaughan. He knew the importance of character in a player, for sure. He always enjoyed a mix of personalities in the dressing room, and I’ve mentioned in a previous blog his analogy of the best teams comprising different characters from a Western film: sheriff, blacksmith, saloon bar manager, gunslinger, and so on. The management groups of players he advocated would always enjoy a good diversity of character within them. At county level he championed younger players. Not just in terms of talent; he liked professionalism as well. I remember a meal out – also in Lancashire, if I recall correctly – when he and Matt were debating which of Wayne Law or Michael Powell, both really promising young batsmen, would progress further in the game. Matt felt that Wayne’s talent would win through. Fletch believed that Michael had the better approach and determination. Both were fine players. But Fletch was proved right. ‘Powelly’ went on to enjoy a career of 15+ years.

Fletch knew his mind. He was convinced that pace at international level was essential. He really pushed Simon Jones at Glamorgan and continued to push for him after he’d moved on to coach England. Simon ended up playing a key role in the 2005 Ashes-winning series, England’s first in 18 years. He also challenged players constantly to develop their skillset and not just settle for what they had. He was forever asking about pace bowlers and leg spin bowlers coming through the Glamorgan system. He wanted innovative cricketers, good team players, players with character, players who could have fun whilst working hard, players who could think for themselves, players who enjoyed being challenged and who enjoyed challenging him back. It always felt like a safe environment because you never once felt that either Duncan, or the player, would even dream of breaking any trust.

I enjoyed his clarity of thought. He knew what he wanted. We negotiated two contracts. I reckon the discussions on the actual mechanics – salary etc. – took no more than a couple of minutes each time. If only some of his players had adopted a similar approach! When he had something on his mind, he’d ask my PA, Caryl Watkin, for an appointment (not that he actually needed to do so) and he’d come in, always with coffee, and immediately, but very politely, raise whatever was on his mind. The range of kit on one occasion, a suggestion that we shouldn’t re-sign a particular player on another, a query about squad travel expenses on a third. There was never any fuss or drama. On the first two, I conceded. On the third, I didn’t. No moaning, no sulking. Make your point and deal with the outcome. He helped me to challenge myself to start behaving in the same way.

Finally, he was consistent. He would treat triumph and disaster in textbook Kiplingesque fashion. Glamorgan were bowled out for just 31 to lose by an innings to Middlesex that June and I had committee members and supporters apoplectically (but thankfully only metaphorically) climbing walls, demanding that something should be done (though none of them was ever able to define what that ‘something’ should be). Chatting to Fletch, he just seemed to shrug it off as a bad day at the office. He explained to me how he expected the team to respond and backed them to do so. Not once did he show undue concern. That calmness rubbed off. Come the next match, which they won (in Liverpool, after a typically sporting declaration from Maynard and a wonderful bowling performance from Waqar and ‘Watty’), as they did the two after that in Swansea, and three wins later he was just as measured. And the background noise had all gone, of course. Very even-keeled, our Fletch.

On the negative side of the ledger, Duncan could be very opinionated if he believed sufficiently in something. Such as there being too much cricket. Or that England players should be on central contracts (which they were put on after he became Coach). Or that there should be a referral system for decisions (and for which he wrote a blueprint that bore remarkable similarity to the system that was eventually introduced). And he was certainly stubborn. Boy, was he stubborn. Sometimes his guardedness was interpreted as arrogance. I still maintain much of that was an inherent defensiveness, rather than anything more malicious, but it wasn’t always acknowledged as such. I heard many people say they thought he was rude. I never saw that, though I can see how he might have rubbed up anyone who wasn’t part of his trusted circle. I also thought he could sometimes make too instant a character judgment. He wasn’t often wrong, but I felt there were occasions when he came to too rapid a conclusion about someone and I disagreed with his assessment. No one is perfect, and Duncan certainly had his flaws, and his critics.

But the pluses so comfortably outweigh the minuses. I can’t really make a detailed assessment of Mike Brearley and Arsene Wenger, my two other leadership heroes in sport, but I can do that more with Duncan Fletcher after having the privilege of seeing him operate at close quarters. The partnership he enjoyed with Matt Maynard was exceptional, one of those rare occasions where the chemistry is spot on and the alchemy – the way they bounced off one another and brought the best out of the rest of the squad – so wonderfully effective. They both had their run-ins with Hugh Davies and the committee, often with me stuck in the middle as mediator, but they were as good a Coach/Captain combination as I have seen. The way they, and Dean Conway – still the finest exponent of knitting a group of sportspeople together as a unit that I have ever seen, not to mention being Fletch’s most relentless and merciless piss-taker for more than 20 years – worked with that squad of players was a pleasure to see. We had a lockdown ‘Zoom’ get together a few weeks ago, including Fletch from his home in South Africa, and it was as if the group hadn’t been away from one another.

He may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but how many good leaders are popular with everyone? Jurgen Klopp is getting there, perhaps (and I look forward to reading more about his methods), but even in his case there will probably still be a few who will have something negative to say. I was taught to speak as I find. And Duncan is one of the very best coaches I have seen; one of the best leaders of a group that I have seen. That he became a friend is a bonus. Irrespective of his many other achievements in cricket, that Glamorgan’s 1997 side was superb. And Fletch brought the very best out of them.

PS Fletch has written a couple of books, one on the 2005 Ashes series, the other an autobiography. Well, when I say ‘has written,’ what I really mean is that Steve James wrote them for him, after having made sense – and interest – of all of his stories and recollections. Despite what Dean Conway may tell you to the contrary, they are worth hunting out for more info on the man: they are, respectively, Ashes Regained and Behind the Shades.