England’s dismal display at the recent T20 World Cup re-inforced the view that they have made a massive error in ditching Kevin Pietersen. With someone of KP’s class and experience in the side one doubts whether England would have suffered that humiliating defeat to the Netherlands. But it is not even in the crash-bang-wallop of the one-day arena that Pietersen’s absence will be felt most strongly. With the Surrey man out of the picture, only two of the top 7 are nailed-on certainties for the first Test against Sri Lanka in June. Pietersen himself has admitted that he still has the hunger and desire for Test cricket, and with England’s top order in disarray, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to keep him. Even at 33 years-old he still has two to three seasons at the top level left in him. So why did England feel the need to dispense with his services?
All this talk from Alastair Cook, Andy Flower and various ECB bigwigs of the team wanting to move in a new direction seems like a load of dog-turd to me. The fact is that Pietersen didn’t fit in to the authoritarian atmosphere that Flower had created. He had the audacity to question certain things and, god-forbid, speak his mind. Because of this, he created tension within the management and the team too. My concern is that Flower and co. refused to adapt to Pietersen’s single-minded nature. You hear talk in football about coaches having great man-managing ability. Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are two such examples of managers who could mould a group of superstars into a coherent and ultimately successful team. Why was this not the case with Pietersen? I have no doubt that he could sometimes be difficult to manage, but therefore why wasn’t he treated a little differently so as to coax out of him maximum performance and commitment to the cause? Every team has a maverick who doesn’t necessarily fit-in. The challenge is to embrace this and enable them to maximise their rare talent, not to try and supress it.
I have a little theory about this whole saga. Pietersen was born and raised in South Africa and despite his ‘English’ nationality, has a very ‘South African’ approach to the game. The culture is highly competitive – aggressive even, and there is a huge will to win at all costs. Pietersen embodies this culture. He is a winner, believes he is the best and wants to show everyone he’s the best. He was often criticised for giving his wicket away to needless attacking shots, but in his world, he wanted to dominate the bowling and grind the fielding side into the ground. It was not enough to simply occupy the crease and stay in. It is an approach that, despite the criticism, brought him 23 Test centuries and over 8,000 runs. Now Pietersen has a very similar record to England captain Alastair Cook, but you don’t hear people chastising Cook for giving his wicket away. This is because Cook accumulates his runs in a very unassuming fashion. He rarely plays extravagant shots and likes to score methodically and ‘correctly’ – in short, in a quintessentially English way. KP by contrast liked to score his runs with authority, taking on the bowling with unorthodox strokeplay and with an air of brashness and arrogance – namely, a more ‘South African’ approach. I think this insistence on playing his natural game combined with his intense ‘winning’ attitude off-the-field jarred somewhat against England’s more traditional and conservative values. There has also been a nagging feeling, and I include myself in this, that Pietersen didn’t quite make the most of his extraordinary ability. The truly great batsmen of the era; Kallis, Ponting, Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Jayawardena, Sangakkara, all average above 50 in Test cricket. Pietersen’s average of 47, whilst very impressive, does not place him in that exalted category. There is a frustration that, with the talent at his disposal, he should have achieved slightly more than he did which could have contributed to his eventual downfall.
Pietersen’s ‘sacking’ is not a first. A recent example is the John Terry/Rio Ferdinand saga of 2012, when, despite clearly being good enough, the Manchester United man was not selected by Roy Hodgson for the Euros squad because of the personal differences he had with Terry. Ironically, a few months later, Terry himself was told he would no longer be selected for England, yet finds himself in a similar situation. Arguably he is one of the four best centre-backs in England but cannot go to the World Cup in Brazil this summer. The difference between these cases is that whilst Terry and Ferdinand were good players in their own right, they were not the best in the team. Pietersen is palpably still the best batsman England have at their disposal, yet they refuse to pick him. One can’t imagine Steven Gerrard, for example, being dropped just because he isn’t that popular in the dressing-room. The whole saga has been conducted in a very childish manner. Someone needs to sit Flower, Cook, the ECB and Pietersen down and just bang their heads together. I’m still hopeful I will see KP in an England shirt again (as a Surrey fan I will hopefully get to watch him a fair amount), but with all that’s happened, it unfortunately doesn’t look likely.
The timing of Pietersen’s removal is made all the more bizarre in that there is no ready-made replacement waiting in the wings. Obviously, players of Pietersen’s class and style come round once in a generation, but I have high hopes for James Taylor, who has been on England’s radar for a number of years. He played a few Tests in 2012 against South Africa and looked solid but since then, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow have jumped ahead of him in the queue. If he can overcome his fitness problems, Samit Patel is another who has oodles of talent, but time is running out for the podgy Nottinghamshire player to make a mark in Test cricket. Eoin Morgan has pulled-out of the IPL in an effort to force his way into the England side but I think he is vastly overrated and will never be a Test regular. Bairstow is another who has a good county record but doesn’t have the requisite technique to succeed at the highest level. He has had enough chances to stake his claim and has never really convinced. Aside from those mentioned, the early county season is a chance for someone to force his way into the selector’s reckoning given that there are no fewer than four places in the top 7 up for grabs (Jonathan Trott has to earn his re-call to the side à la Graham Thorpe in 2003). Whoever is picked as Pietersen’s replacement against Sri Lanka in June will have some enormous shoes to fill.