/ 22 July 2011

Battle for top spot begins

Andy Flower leans forward animatedly and appears ready to punch the air. His knees smack against the table and his cup of tea totters amid such intensity before, speaking urgently, Flower says, “I’m so glad you brought this up. I find it amazing people are amazed that we talk about being the No. 1 side in the world. People make a big thing of it — especially commentators and ex-players.”

Opening his eyes wide and pursing his lips in an expression approaching astonishment — which is not a look readily associated with a man as coolly contained as England’s coach — Flower shakes his head. “When they played for England did they not want to be the best side in the world? Doesn’t every Test team want that goal? Surely? Isn’t it very obvious and natural? I find it strange that it’s seen as overconfidence or an outlandish goal. Surely that’s the goal you should have? Otherwise aren’t you selling yourself and your country short?”

Flower’s burst of questions, delivered in his mild Zimbabwean accent, needs no answer. His commitment to England becoming the best cricket team in the world runs deep – as does his belief that the objective will soon be realised.

“Absolutely,” he says. “We don’t set the goal with the expectation we’re just going to talk about it. We haven’t put a time limit on it but this series is different because we’re playing the current No 1 side in the world.”

England’s four-Test series against India, which began on Thursday at Lord’s, promises to be a riveting contest. It could also usher in a new world No 1 in the Test rankings.

After successive Ashes victories under Flower, England have risen from No 6, the position they occupied when he became coach two-and-a-half years ago, to being rated the third-best team – behind South Africa and India. Yet if they beat India by two clear Tests or more they will become the new leaders of world cricket.

Flower’s ambition can be measured in the different weight he lends to the occasion. The series itself is just another step in a relentless drive for improvement — so much so that establishing themselves as the world’s best team has become a short-term aim. England is now pursuing a more lasting legacy.

“I think that’s accurate,” Flower says, “but we need to get to No 2 first. We’ll do that if we win this series — but just beating India doesn’t guarantee moving us into the top slot. But, on the eve of this series, I can’t help but concentrate on this match and on the first day. That’s the important focus.”

Flower, however, is in the mood to glance both back and forward before he is consumed again. “It’s gone very well over the last two years and we’ve had really good results. But I’m very keen for it not just to be two good years. We want to establish —”

The 43-year-old pauses as he tussles over his words. “I really don’t want this to sound clichéd but we want to establish an England team culture that is very strong and stands the test of time. That’s achievable if it’s run well.”

Flower looks admiringly at the cricketing dynasties from the recent past — in the West Indies and Australia — with the requisite mix of ambition and realism. “It’s definitely not impossible [to reach that level] but we’ve got a long way to go before we could even dream of such dominance. We have to take care of the here and now. This series is vitally important.”

Beyond England’s impressive results under Flower — which include winning a first international cricket trophy in last year’s Twenty20 World Cup — he instils a purpose and composure into his squad which has attracted his rivals. There had been speculation earlier this year that India hoped to lure Flower from England and, here, he makes a frank revelation.

Asked if he has been approached by the Indian board to replace Gary Kirsten as coach, Flower nods. “There was an investigation by them last year to see if I would be interested. But I’m very committed to doing this job.”

Considering the calibre of the team he now faces, and India’s cricketing obsession, was he tempted by a fascinating challenge? “Yes, of course I thought about it,” Flower says. “I’ve always really enjoyed touring India. I think the country is vibrant and exciting and I love being there. It’s a great atmosphere to play sport so of course I thought about it. But I have unfinished business with England and I’d like to do this job properly before I move on.”

Had he flown to India to discuss the position would he have been offered the role ahead of Duncan Fletcher? “I don’t know. It’s all speculation.”

Considering whether this series will be his most taxing, Flower issues a telling caveat. “I’m not sure it’s the toughest. We’ll talk afterwards about how tough it was. It’s a great challenge but some of the toughest series are going to Sri Lanka and trying to win there – same with Australia. Playing the No 1 side here is going to be a tough proposition but we believe we can beat them.”

Flower’s conviction and planning have not prevented an unsettling conundrum. England now have three captains — Andrew Strauss for Tests, Alastair Cook in 50-over internationals and Stuart Broad in Twenty20 matches.

“The three-captain situation is certainly not some grand design that we thought might be an interesting model for us,” Flower says wryly. “It was simply because Strauss didn’t want to keep playing limited-over cricket.

“It was the natural thing for him to stay on as Test captain. It was also a natural progression for Cook to take over the one-day side. As an opener he steps into Strauss’s shoes and he might become a much better one-day player than Strauss.

“He’s a natural successor as captain. But at the moment he doesn’t get into our best XI Twenty20 side so we needed a third captain. It was a simple procedure for me to reach that outcome. But it certainly wasn’t some magnificent managerial idea.”

Has he been surprised by Cook transforming himself from a derided “plodder” into a dashing opener in the one-day series defeat of Sri Lanka — scoring 298 runs at an average of 74.5 with a startling strike rate of 96.75? “I was keeping an open mind on Cook,” Flower says with a grin. “But he’s always embraced and overcome every challenge. He’s had just one good series but he’s got to take his and England’s game to new heights.”

The often volatile Broad, struggling in all formats, is a much bigger gamble. “Well, it’s no more a gamble than if we’d picked Cook as T20 captain,” Flower counters. “It would be a much bigger gamble not to have Cook as one-day captain. I wouldn’t take that gamble.”

Is Flower also concerned about Broad as a Test bowler? “I didn’t think he bowled as badly as his figures suggested against Sri Lanka. I’ve got a lot of respect for Broad as a young cricketer. He’s got pace and bounce and he’s a great competitor — but he can be more accurate. I’ve heard some crazy stuff about him being — and I hate this word — an ‘enforcer’. His job is to create pressure and to take wickets and to do that you generally bowl at off stump. So his job is not to rough up the opposition. It is not to be this ridiculous ‘enforcer’.”

Broad has not helped himself with some petulant outbursts. “He’s passionate about playing for England but he has a responsibility to behave in the right way,” Flower says. “He is perfectly well aware of it because he’s smart. He must embrace that responsibility and act accordingly.”

Does Flower remind Broad of his new responsibility? “I do. He’s only young but I don’t want to be reminding him forever.”

That veiled warning assumed more tangible shape when Flower dropped Broad from the deciding one-day international against Sri Lanka. “It wasn’t a particularly tough decision,” he shrugs. “We had to bring in another spinner and we thought [Jade] Dernbach would be more effective and give us a better chance of winning. It seemed fairly simple to me. But these decisions are important because they affect people’s lives, careers and reputations.”

If Broad’s immediate future is uncertain, Flower’s improved contract means he has greater power to decide what is best for him and the squad.

And so he says he would consider missing a minor tour as coach — just as Strauss skipped last year’s Bangladesh trip. “Definitely — without a doubt. I think it would be the right thing to do for the team and the other coaches. It’s good for the team to have a different man in charge every now and then.”

Has Flower improved considerably as a coach since he replaced Peter Moores in early 2009? “I’d bloody well hope so,” he says with a laugh. “No, I really have improved. If you’ve got an inquisitive mind then, just through daily experience, you’re going to get better. I’ve learnt a lot about running a team and keeping a group of 25 people on the right track. We’re heading in the right direction but, still, there is a hell of a long way to go.” —