While Irish sport pores over Jack Grealish’s decision on his nationality –he seems to be waiting for the pretty girl’s call but he might just settle for the consolation prize of Ireland if she ignores him much longer- it’s interesting to observe how one of the greatest English cricket players of all time is being denied the opportunity to play for his country by their newly appointed rulers. For those who have no interest in cricket –and we know there are many- this story is compelling as an observation of administrative incompetence. There’s a certain satisfaction –most likely the world over- in seeing English sporting bodies make complete laughing stocks of themselves as the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has done this week. Do we dislike the English? Of course not. Do we enjoy seeing England, and, in particular their beyond reproach sporting administrative bodies, fall flat on their faces? Absolutely. Kevin Pietersen, England’s marmite-like, South African batsman at the centre of the controversy has been indefinitely denied a place in the English team under the new regime. The problem is that the same person who rubberstamped Pietersen’s exclusion –not a ban- incoming chairman, Colin Graves also told him, just two months ago, that if he put up some numbers playing in English county cricket he’d be in the England selectors thoughts once more.
Natal born Pietersen has rarely if ever been able to escape controversy since his English test debut in 2005. That summer the swashbuckling right-hander was the toast of English cricket, playing a massive role in England regaining the Ashes from Australia for the first time since 1989. Since then he has fallen in and out –mostly out- of favour with team-mates and he garnered the reputation as a surly, arrogant, divisive character who is all about the team but just as long as he comes first. Pietersen was touted as a highly talented though enormously difficult character when he first arrived in England in the early 2000s so English cricket knew exactly what it was getting. For all his misgivings KP has elicited mass sympathy since the new director of English cricket, former teammate Andrew Strauss, told him this week that he was not involved in England’s plans either now or in the future. Pietersen’s bold boy in the corner routine neatly dovetails with the sacking, for second time of English coach Peter Moores.
Six years ago following a dispute with then captain Pietersen, Moores was dismissed from his position, while Pietersen, who had undermined his manager completely, was removed as head of the tribe. 2013’s dismal Ashes Series saw England beaten the length and breadth of Australia and afterwards the rapid back-to-back departures of coaches Andy Flower and then Ashley Giles. Moores was tempted back – perhaps he has a goldfish memory- for a further bout of failure and ultimately humiliation. The ECB knew he wasn’t up to the job the first time so why reappoint him? Pietersen, meanwhile has been out of the national picture since after the 2013 Ashes –where he was England’s best batsman -when he was told by then ECB Managing Director, Paul Downton that he was surplus to requirements going forward. Fine thought KP as he made his way to India to reap the rewards of seven weeks play in the lucrative Indian Premier League. All relatively humdrum so far but the insular ECB, themselves about to undergo a mini facelift, replacing company men with their mirror images, conspired to illustrate their collective idiocy.
First, incoming chairman, Colin Graves dangled a big juicy carrot in Pietersen’s direction with an assurance that if KP returned and played county cricket –four day matches- and scored runs then he could be in contention for the summer tests against first New Zealand and then the crucial Ashes series against an Australian side who can clearly smell blood. Pietersen who you must remember had his England career cut short on somebody else’s terms jumped at Graves open invitation, forewent his relatively lucrative IPL contract and returned home to play for Surrey. His willingness to buckle down was further confirmed by his agreement to play for Surrey free of charge. Surrey meanwhile would get free labour from one of the best batsmen of the last ten years. All the while England were muddling their way to a drawn test series –a series they needed to be winning at a canter- against a West Indian side shorn of their stars, and at the beginning of a new cycle. The knives were sharpening over the now erstwhile coach Moores and the axe eventually dropped earlier this week.
Moores’ sacking –which was widely leaked before the man himself knew- was the catalyst for some top class idiotic machinations from one hell of a self-regarding organisation. Strauss replaced Paul Downton –the old enemy of Pietersen- and it was the new boy who told Moores to empty his locker. Down in Surrey Pietersen –only playing for crowds of three-hundred because of new chairman Graves’ direction- was en-route to compiling his highest ever score of 355. So when the new regime came in an expectant Pietersen’s dreams were smashed when Strauss stressed there was a “massive trust issue” with the South African – perhaps Strauss in his new role as head boy was settling old scores– and he wasn’t part of England’s plans going forward. Then, in a gesture of patronising appeasement, Strauss offered Pietersen a role as advisor to the one-day side. So Strauss effectively thought, ‘basically Kevin we (and mainly I) don’t trust you to play but we would like you to fulfil a perfunctory role to make us feel better. We’re so progressive that we’re actually allowing you partake in a fundamental trust exercise.’ Graves, like a back-pedalling politician, seems to have quietly removed himself from the furore and towed the party line. In fact, the whole ECB are patting themselves on the back for dealing with Pietersen openly. Except they didn’t. And, while he certainly has his misgivings they’ve somewhat deceived him and definitely portrayed themselves as incompetent and out-of-touch.
Perhaps the bigger point here is that England have ignored their best player in the last 18 months because he’s a bit of a dick. When did a player ever have to be universally liked? Or, more ridiculously, when did an administrative body decide that a man couldn’t represent the national team because they didn’t trust him. True, Pietersen is a tantrum waiting to happen but it’s not like he slept with their wives. There are plenty of arrogant sportsmen out there whose teammates choose to co-exist with because it means a stronger collective on the field. LeBron James is arrogant enough to unilaterally take two weeks downtime in Miami mid-season, while even current Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke has ruffled the feathers of teammates past and present. And Cristiano Ronaldo –obviously an all-time great- is a surly ass, who appears to be on the verge of tears if anyone other than him scores for Real Madrid.
Most pertinently for England, Australia are on the horizon. And Australians love nothing more than humiliating the English in the Ashes. Pietersen’s omission has been met with bemused delight by the Australian cricket community, confounded by the fact that their great nemesis of Ashes past has been sent to pasture before his time. Incidentally Pietersen bats at number four, a position which is currently filled by England stalwart Ian Bell. Why didn’t the petty Strauss or even Graves simply mention that Bell is currently entrenched in the side but that Pietersen will be considered if a drop in form or injury intervene?
You learn to accommodate your best players, histrionics and all. Surely that is part and parcel of management. Australia –the top ranked side in the world- would assuredly find a place for Pietersen in their playing setup. They are all about winning. And, while the ECB might make a similar claim they are clearly an antiquated entity that never fail to shoot themselves in their clumsy feet.