Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Kevin Pietersen: for once the powers that be have made the right decision

Always a drama with Kevin Pietersen. The way he batted, the way he got (himself) out, and the way he theatrically tumbled to the ground when fielding, pausing for effect, looking like he picked up a niggle. Pietersen never did understated. A softly spoken man when chatting to the media, almost bashful at times, in contrast to his expansive and exaggerated drives, pull shots and hooks.

It’s a sad but inevitable day that it’s had to end like this. But Pietersen is lucky he’s been allowed to play for England this long: to get to his 100 caps and pass 8,000 Test runs. He should have been axed after 2012’s ‘Textgate’ saga. How can anyone possibly have a bad word to say about one of the gentlemen of sport, Andrew Strauss?
Many of England’s players have their own newspaper columns where they say not very much. However one column that sticks in my mind came from James Anderson in the Mail on Sunday, soon after Pietersen had been dropped from the final Test against South Africa in the summer of 2012, after the ‘Textgate’ revelations came to light:

Frankly, as players, all this has been a distraction we could well do without as we approach a massively important final match at Lord’s.
“Going into the match without Kevin wouldn’t be ideal because, as everyone who saw the knock last week will know, an innings like that is invaluable.

“At the same time, no player is ever bigger than the team.
“Kevin talked about having issues within the dressing room. What’s frustrating is that this was, literally, the first we knew about it. Kevin has mentioned nothing to us.”

That last sentence is very revealing. Jonathan Agnew, a pundit who I respect more than any other, has cautioned against speculating about what did and didn’t happen within the dressing room over the last few years. Unless you were there you can’t possibly know. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good educated guess.
Mike Atherton, in his Times (£) piece today, notes bluntly, that Pietersen simply ran out of allies:

“Even Alastair Cook, the young captain who had taken Pietersen back into the fold after the retirement of Andrew Strauss, now wants to rebuild an England team without him.
“Cook has come to realise that all that glitters out in the middle is not necessarily gold in the dressing room.”

Atherton adds that all the key figures at the ECB were unanimous in their decision. And the key line:
“Downton had also taken findings from England players after the whitewash in Australia, and there were no voices among the senior players telling him that Pietersen should remain.”

As a huge England fan and a Pietersen devotee (until the last couple of years, anyway) I actually find that sentence quite upsetting. Assuming what Atherton says is true, and cricket journos seem to get closer to the players than in other sports, it doesn’t say much for Pietersen as a member of the team.
There have always been doubts and whispers that he never got on with his teammates. That he was a bit of a loner off the field who didn’t really mix with the others. Again, it’s hard to know for certain how accurate these reports are. But when the same stories emerge time and again you begin to wonder.

There were issues with his time at Nottinghamshire and apparent fallings out with teammates. He left Hampshire after barely playing any matches for them, citing the need to be closer to his family in London. He fell out very publically with England coach Peter Moores when he was captain. They both left their roles soon after. In his autobiography, released in 2011, Graeme Swann wrote:
“There is no doubt that Kev is a good player, a really fine batsman, but he was never the right man to be captain."

A lot of discussion since the news broke yesterday has centered around the likes of Michael Vaughan and the view that every team needs to be able to manage mavericks. This belies the fact that England have been trying to manage this maverick since the very beginning and have done pretty well. They have been more than accommodating.

I would argue that a player of less ability wouldn’t have been tolerated for this long. I’m sure there are times when you can make exceptions and forgive and forget, but Pietersen has been trying the patience of a lot of people over a good number of years. He’s had his chances. Several of them.

In terms of his performances on the pitch, his shot selection has got more erratic, even by his crazy standards. Some of his dismissals in the most recent Ashes were unforgiveable. Agnew argues that:
“He dug deep and fought only once, when he scored 71 and 49 at Melbourne.

“If he had averaged 40 and been caught behind every time, then he may have survived. However, the way he got out in the first three Tests in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth will have played a big part in the decision taken by the ECB.

“Pietersen has always batted however he feels on a particular day, but if he could not get his head down and play for the team when they were up against it, could he ever do so?”

When getting out at Perth, to yet another reckless shot, he tweeted his delight at having reached 8,000 Test runs. The fact that England were on the verge of another trashing, and with it the surrendering of the Ashes, made the timing of the tweet a little insensitive to say the least.
During his summarising over the winter, Geoffrey Boycott commented that far from inspiring his younger teammates, the way Pietersen was batting, the way he kept losing concentration and playing stupid shots, showed he wasn’t really much of an example to others. Worse, he kept getting out the same way, expressing no regret because that’s just how he plays, and then got away with it because he’s Kevin Pietersen.

This isn’t about picking a scapegoat. This is about someone who now seems incapable of playing for the team when the situation demands it, about someone who has gone about alienating his colleagues who no doubt have been a little resentful that he’s got away with things others would surely have not.
It’s the end of the greatest England player I’ve ever had the privilege to see. When batting I never dared leave the room, such was the unpredictable nature of his play. He’s given us years of thrills and excitement. He’s also given everyone involved one hell of a headache. For once, the powers that be have made the right decision.   

This piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 5th February 2014

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The NHS needs to adapt to the lives of working people

Most proposed reforms carry with them the promise of a bundle of cash. If we throw X billion at Y problem, the public will see we’re doing something and said problem will be fixed. But the fact that Labour invested huge sums in education and health yet we still have an underperforming state school system, and a health service that often fails to get the basics right, shows the limitations of money.

It’s always been a source of frustration for me that aspects of the NHS don’t seem to cater for those in work, i.e. most of us. If you’re elderly, unemployed, self-employed or a student, you’re fine. You can afford the rigidity the service demands. But, if you work the standard 9-5, Monday to Friday shift, you’ll find a health service not always accommodating to your needs.

This is particularly the case when trying to see your GP, although I’ve never really had my own GP. I always laugh when the receptionist asks who my GP is. I never see the same person twice so your guess is as good as mine is the response I never but should give.
Recent experiences have left me frustrated, angry and bemused at how inflexible and unresponsive our system is. Often it leaves me with the impression that the needs of its staff come way above those of its patients. The NHS should adapt according to how we lead our lives and not bristle every time changes are suggested that attempt to do just that.   

Speak to any working person and I’ll have a small wager that most of them have had one of those ‘why is this so difficult?’ moments. I regularly have one of those moments.
Because people were getting fed up at not being able to phone their surgery and make an appointment to see their GP on that same day, the last Labour government stepped in to remedy that. In typical Labour fashion, they put something right by going to the other extreme. How to attract more GPs? Pay them a whopping salary, tie them in to long contracts, and allow them to opt out of evening and weekend work. Can’t see your GP on the same day? From 8.30am put your surgery number on redial and compete with every other poor sod also frantically trying to get one of the handful of available slots that day.

Now trying to book a GP appointment has become as much of a lottery as trying to get through to Ticketmaster to book concert tickets. Yes I know, most of the latter is now done online, but it’s much more fun dialling the same number over a hundred times in an hour on the off chance that the engaged tone will miraculously become the ringing tone.
If you plan to ring up at 8.30, you need to be organised. Where will you be at 8.30am? Not everyone gets to work at this time. Londoners tend to start later than everyone else. 8.30 is probably going to be too late to leave for work. You may be stuck on the tube at 8.30, or on a crowded bus, or even worse, in an open plan office. You can’t disappear from your desk for an hour with your mobile stuck on redial. But, the best thing about this system is that it doesn’t realise how barmy it actually is.

The last time I took part in this process left me grumpy all day. At work, at 8.30am, ready to start ringing. Incredibly, I got through within 10 minutes. Only about 20 redials needed. I asked if I could have the latest possible appointment. Was I able to come in at 9.30? Wow, that is late, I had no idea my surgery opened that late. Good for them. They didn’t. The receptionist meant in 40 minutes time. I explained that wasn’t possible as I was already at work and reliant on public transport. I would never have made it back in time. I meant later as in not early.
I was offered 11.30am. Again, not convenient. Unfortunately, my working day is longer than 8.30-11am. I was told all the late appointments had been taken. Already? Yes, they’d been booked up in advance. How advanced I enquired? A few weeks ago. If I wanted a late slot, the next available day would be in two weeks. Reluctantly and quietly fuming I asked for one of those. The receptionist told me patients have to ring after 11.30 to make future – non same day - appointments. It was at this moment I leapt aboard my high horse to begin the inevitable rant, but being the polite chap that I am, made sure I prefaced it with a courteous: “look, I know none of this is your fault. It’s the system.”

If for whatever reason you are home all day, you have the luxury of being able to see your GP at anytime. If you don’t, be prepared to say very rude things the next time you hear some Leftist devotee describe the NHS as ‘the envy of the world.’
I know this isn’t something that afflicts all people. Some surgeries offer late night appointments, although often reserved for one day a week. You are now able to book online if you’re lucky.

My new surgery has embraced the internet age and offers this service. However, in order to be eligible to use it, you first need to fill in a form, which can be emailed back. My surgery informed me last week that they currently have no working email address so the form has to be returned in person. Thus, if you want to use the online booking procedure, you need to fill in the form online, print it out, and then traipse to the surgery to hand it in, in person. That is when you have the time to go to your surgery. On a day you’re not working of course. I was also helpfully notified that only some appointments to see only certain doctors would be available online.
When I first joined this surgery I was told that my registration form couldn’t be filled in online but had to be brought back in person. I’d left any suitable ID at home so couldn’t hand it in there and then. Two trips to register were required.

It shouldn’t be this hard. I realise that many people, such as the elderly, don’t have access to the internet, or are uncomfortable at using it, but for those that do, having to revert back to a time where things need to be booked over the phone, and forms need to be handed in, is a right pain in the backside.
When politicians talk about reforming the NHS or any other area of the public sector, it’s the little things they need to get right. The things that shouldn’t cost a fortune.

The NHS is not flexible or internet-friendly enough. The backlash from GPs when the government proposed that all surgeries open weekends and evenings is evidence to me that they’ve had it their own way for far too long. For £103,000 a year (the average salary of a GP partner), the least they should be doing is opening for a few hours on the weekend and until at least 8pm during the week.
Our medical records should be available online. Patients should be able to email surgeries rather than rely on phoning. Steps are already in place to ensure that patients will soon be able to register to see a GP near where they work, or near their children’s school. Ideally, we’d have the option of registering at two practices: one near home and one near work.

It’s true that those of a working age are also the least likely to need a GP, but that doesn’t mean that when we do need one, the process should be tortuous. The hard-working-people-that-want-to-get-on would like to see their GP at a time of their convenience please.
This comment piece was first published on Speaker's Chair on Tuesday 4th February 2014