On England’s 1986-87 tour to Australia, as he had done during most of his time as coach, the former Surrey batsman knew to leave well alone and this softly, softly approach paid dividends.
After a hair-raising first month during which The Cricket Paper’s Martin Johnson wrote:“There are only three things wrong with this team. They can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field.” Mike Gatting’s mixed bag of old hands and big personalities including Ian Botham, David Gower, Allan Lamb, Chris Broad, Bill Athey and Phil Edmonds somehow contrived to win the Ashes and all in the garden was rosy.
But it was not until the 1989 rematch had ended in chaos that Stewart was paired with a captain whose work ethic truly matched his own and he and Graham Gooch set about raising base levels of fitness far higher than those England’s international cricketers had been used to.
He once spelled out the change of culture that he believed was required, thus: “Question: what is the next word most people think of when you say the word ‘cricket’? Answer:‘beer’.” With the help of Gooch, whose commitment to physical fitness was absolute, the new approach almost paid rich dividends straight away.
When England travelled to the Caribbean in 1990, they did so as walking walkovers. They were without Gower and Botham and a host of others who had chosen to join the rebel tour to South Africa that winter instead, they had not won a Test in West Indies since 1974, nor a single Test overseas for three years and had won only one match against anyone, home or away, in their previous 26 attempts.Vivian Richards, his explosive batsmen and his fearsome pacemen were licking their lips.
But England caused a famous upset when they won the first Test in Jamaica, and they would have taken a 2-0 lead in Trinidad which would have secured at least a share of the series had injury to Gooch then torrential rain not stopped their victory charge dead.
And though the tour ultimately ended in glorious defeat, it marked the start of a period of relative success in which, the partnership earned wins against New Zealand (twice), India and Sri Lanka, battled to a 2-2 draw against West Indies in 1991 – England’s best result against them for 17 years – and took their side to the
final of the 1992 World Cup, a run of success spoiled only by defeat in the 1990-91 Ashes and, in his final series, at home to Pakistan, dogged by controversy over alleged ball-tampering by the visiting fast bowlers.
Stewart’s emphasis on fitness, diet and video analysis seem commonplace now but, for the time, were quite revolutionary. His impact on the future positive development of England cricket should not be underestimated. England cricket in the mid-Nineties was a car crash on a loop and the ensuing confusion extended to the role of the coach, with no-one quite sure who should be driving or how.
Much of the good work done by Stewart had been undermined; Keith Fletcher was appointed to succeed him but found it impossible to bring the canniness and craft he had developed in a brilliant county career with Essex to the international stage. Ray Illingworth came next and by the end of his controversial reign had somehow been elevated to the role of supremo, encompassing coach, manager, chief selector and “Ilytollah”, much to the discomfort of his captain Mike Atherton whose power and influence were steadily eroded in the process. David “Bumble” Lloyd took over as England attempted to redress that balance, but fell out with his superiors and quit.
By the time England started to cast around for a new man they were in the process of completing their descent to the bottom of the Test rankings and Duncan Fletcher must have wondered what he had let himself in for when, at his interview for the job in 1999, one of the panel of ECB officials welcomed him with the words,“Hello, Dav”, confusing the Zimbabwean with his fellow candidate Dav Whatmore, a Sri-Lankan born naturalised Australian.
Undaunted, England’s first overseas coach proved an inspired choice.
Fletcher was unafraid to make instant calls over players, good and bad, and his disciplinarian nature claimed an early victim when, after his first England tour to South Africa in 1999/2000, Graeme Swann was jettisoned for regular infringements of discipline and what was seen as an unhealthy relationship with a certain Jack Daniel.
That possible error of judgment was more than compensated for by the selection and nurturing of Marcus Trescothick, the burly Somerset basher whose career seemed to be going nowhere until Fletcher saw him hammer his Glamorgan side at Taunton and determined to get him into the England side as soon as possible. Then again, Fletcher’s insistence on his pacemen being able to hit 90mph consistently left little room for manoeuvre and stretching for extra pace may have hindered the progress of one or two, including James Anderson.
A brilliant batting coach, Fletcher instigated the “press” a technique based on an initial small step forward, which allowed a batsman to make further movement back or forward from a moving start. Not all players were convinced but some swore by it.
His work, in partnerships with skippers Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, was helped by the introduction of full-time ECB central contracts (Atherton and others had been calling for them for years), enabling them to build a team to take on the world and, more importantly, win the 2005 Ashes.Vaughan was the team’s leader, but Fletcher was its tactical guide, encouraging his players to get in the face of the Aussies, and stay there.
Upset: Micky Stewart and the England team celebrate after victory in the first Test against the West Indies in 1990