England wrong to jettison Pietersen so soon

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.

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Cricket – no longer a gentleman’s game

The other day I did something unforgiveable; an act so distressing that it’s tantamount to treason to even write about it.  But here goes: I watched the IPL.  I know, I’m going straight to hell.  I feel like I’ve committed cricketing adultery.  Anyway, I settled down on the sofa to watch a bit of this commercialised slog-fest, a rather drab encounter between the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Pune Warriors India, and this one incident made my heart sink.  Jacques Kallis of KKR bowled a ball to Pune’s Robin Uthappa who drove the ball back down the ground.  Kallis flicked out a boot to try and stop the ball, flicked the ball (very faintly) onto the stumps at the non-striker’s end, and ran out Aaron Finch.  Kallis wheeled away in celebration, convinced that he had dismissed the Australian, and the umpire called for the television replay.  Finch was clearly short of his ground and therefore should have been on his bike pronto.  Except, the 3rd umpire proceeded to spend at least four minutes determining whether Kallis had actually touched the ball which would validate the dismissal.  Television replay proved to be inconclusive (it looked like Kallis had got at least a stud to the ball) and Finch was given not out.  A visibly irate Kallis then remonstrated forcefully with the umpire and you could see him on TV saying ‘are you calling me a cheat?’

            Now, what should have happened is Finch should have asked Kallis if he had touched the ball before it cannoned into the stumps.  If Kallis replies in the affirmative, Finch should then walk off the field, satisfied that he has the bowler’s/fielder’s word.  Instead the above farcial situation occurred where actually nobody was at fault.  If the on-field umpire is unsure about an aspect of the dismissal, he is correct to refer the decision to the television replay.  The problem occurs when the television replay cannot concretely prove that the batsman is out.  In these cases, the decision invariably goes against the fielding side.  Now Jacques Kallis is an extremely experienced international cricketer of some integrity.  If he says he touched the ball, he touched the ball and the batsman walks off, end of story.  Kallis started playing cricket when, if you edged the ball to the wicket-keeper, you walked off without even waiting for the umpire’s decision, something that simply doesn’t occur in modern-day cricket, especially in the international arena.  This is why, when his integrity was called into question, he reacted with such incredulity.

            This is one example of a wider problem in the game of cricket.  Yes TV replays have improved the game no end and yes, 99% of the time they provide the correct decision, but often, particularly in the case of disputed catches, they cannot provide 100% certainty.  Until 15 years ago, the status quo was, in the case of a disputed catch, to ask the fielder whether he had caught the ball.  If the reply was yes, you accepted his word and walked off the field.  No need to get the umpires involved.  It is a worryingly recent trend for a batsmen to stand their ground, even when clean catches have been taken, hoping the decision will be referred to the third umpire who often can’t decide whether a ball has bounced before the catch has been taken because the television replays prove ‘inconclusive’.  Batsmen think they can get away with it even when they know deep down that they’re out.  It creates unnecessary hostility, resentment and ultimately, the game of cricket loses out because fewer and fewer players are inclined to be honest, especially in the younger generation who have grown up with TV referrals as the norm, watching the often dubious behaviour of modern-day cricketers.

            In days gone by, batsmen would walk if they knew they had edged the ball behind the wicket.  The last international player to do this on a regular basis was Adam Gilchrist of Australia who would, as recently as the 2006/07 Ashes series, be off towards the pavilion with his bat tucked under his arm before the umpire could even move his finger.  Refreshingly, this honesty still occurs in county cricket.  At a sun drenched Oval on Bank Holiday Monday, I watched Hampshire’s Michael Carberry walk after a thin edge off a Jade Dernbach delivery in the third over.  The bowler knew it was out, the batsman knew he’d nicked it, the catch had been cleanly taken by Steven Davies behind the stumps; no fuss at all.  The umpire didn’t have to get involved.  As one Geoffrey Boycott would say: ‘proper cricket’.  On the international stage however, this behaviour is as rare as a Monty Panesar century.  The stakes are higher and there is more pressure to win at all costs.  There is a sense of ‘it is the umpire’s job to give me out’.

It all started with the Australian cricket team of the early 1990’s.  They were one of the most successful cricket teams of all time because they had a ruthless winning mentality.  If this meant eroding the spirit of the game then so be it.  Other teams followed suit and now cricket is in a situation where a player’s word counts for nothing.  A few players, notably India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara are the exceptions that prove the rule.  Tendulkar was famously instrumental in recalling the England batsman Ian Bell after he had been controversially run out in the 2rd test at Nottingham of India’s tour of England in 2011.  Bell had mistakenly believed his partner, Eoin Morgan, had hit the final ball before tea for four and started walking off the field.  The fielder, Abhinav Mukund, dived to stop the ball and behaved as if the ball had gone for four.  He then threw the ball back to the wicket-keeper MS Dhoni who removed the bails and appealed to the umpire for a run-out.  The appeal was originally upheld until the Indian team were asked to withdraw their appeal by the England management.  Tendulkar was the man who told his team-mates that they should withdraw the appeal.  The Little Master is a man who values the traditions of the game and is widely believed to be an influential figure in India’s continued refusal to use the DRS system.  It is Tendulkar’s belief that the umpire’s decision is final – that is how he has always played the game and in the Bell run out case, the spirit of cricket should prevail over technicalities and misunderstandings.

I realise that in writing this I might sound like a bit of an old whinger.  Believe me, I enjoy nothing more than a hard, competitive game of cricket where both teams are trying their utmost to win.  This is when cricket is at its most compelling and for me what makes it the greatest sport in the world.  Unfortunately the days when honesty, integrity, fair-play, spirit and gentlemanly conduct were second nature are gone.  In an ideal world, captains and coaches would instil this culture into their teams but that is just a fanciful dream.  Instead we can look forward to over-commercialised, sponsor-riddled T20 bonanzas where the TV replay becomes overly prevalent and the player’s honesty becomes but a distant memory.