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

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