Sunday, July 12, 2009

The ECB has killed their Golden Goose

When Michael Vaughan resigned as England’s Test Captain, and simultaneously Paul Collingwood stood down as limited overs captain, Kevin Pietersen was the obvious if courageous choice to replace them both. He was by some distance England’s best batsman and commentators close to the game all agreed that he was a thoughtful cricketer with a good tactical brain. The skunk-haired tyro had gone and KP’s personal life had settled down with his marriage to the sensible and supportive Jessica Taylor. That is was a choice that required courage came not from the risk that Pietersen would not be worth his place in the team, nor that he lacked tactical awareness, although his captaincy experience was minimal and he would clearly have to learn on the job some aspects of the role. The risk of Pietersen’s appointment was the mirror image of its potential potency – KP is utterly unlike anyone who has ever been an England cricket captain in the past. His fellow South African Tony Greig had a similar southern hemisphere approach which was the reverse of the Cowdrey/May tradition – although his style was not dissimilar to that of Hutton or Illingworth. But Greig grew up in a Cape Province and his father was Scottish – this was the world of English speaking white South Africa and although the culture was obviously different to that of the old country those differences were not huge. Kevin Pietersen, on the other hand, grew up in Pietermaritzburg which was in the heart of Voortrekker country – and that is very different indeed.

To those who may be unfamiliar with white South Africa the differences between those of British Isles origins and those who are Afrikaners are enormous. Language and religion – those most decisive of differentiators are different and so are attitudes to life in general. It is no exaggeration to say that someone like Tony Greig would have far more in common with the British than he would with his Afrikaner fellow South Africans. And Kevin Pietersen, his English mother notwithstanding, grew up in a solidly Afrikaner environment. His strong father seems an archetypical Afrikaner and the values that he instilled in the young Kevin must have been much more South African Dutch than they were South African English. Far more Hansie Cronje than Graeme Smith.

When the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) appointed Pietersen as captain they could not have been unaware that his personality and style were completely un-English. True KP had proclaimed his allegiance to England and had an England cricket tattoo on his arm. But one of the reasons that he had already sharply divided opinion among the cricketing chattering classes was that inbred into him was an “in-your-face” competitive style which came in no small measure from his Pietermaritzburg upbringing. This is seen as arrogance and a bit show-poneyish by those for whom Peter May or Colin Cowdrey were the epitomy of how a cricketer should behave. But those on the other side of the argument argued that this was exactly what England cricket needed. In the same way that England only won an Ashes series when they appointed a Southern African coach if we were to do this again, and maybe even win a Limited Overs tournament as well, we need the shock to the system that Kevin Pietersen would bring.

So the ECB took courage in their hands and appointed the very foreign Kevin Pietersen as England’s captain. Results came in immediately with a Test match win and a One Day series victory against South Africa. KP also handled the communications duties of an England captain with aplomb and he looked to be an inspiring captain on the field as well. His body-language was excellent and the England players were clearly responding to the KP enthusiasm. The tour to India was more difficult on the field but Pietersen did well in the hugely different circumstances post the Mumbai attacks. But KP wanted to be in charge, which is what he was taught as a child - there can be only one leader in a team. The trouble was that the England coach Peter Moores thought that he was in charge as well and he was not only a hands-on manager but he had a personal style that was anathema to Pietersen. Moores had been comfortable in the supremely English and rather deferential world of Sussex and this, combined with a pride and bloody-mindedness which came perhaps from his North-country upbringing was a recipe for conflict with Pietersen. The ECB had to choose whether to back their captain or to back their coach – and in the end they backed neither! KP was sacked and Moores dismissed as well.

From the moment that Kevin Pietersen lost the job as England captain he has seemed a totally different person – hardly surprisingly, nobody likes being humiliated. True his natural talent has seen some decent performances but he is indisputably not the same man he was. The smiles, when they come, look forced and in the interviews what were once self-confident statements of intent now sound like parroted platitudes. And at Cardiff we saw a side of Pietersen that suggests that the ECB have more than just the loss of an original and potentially inspiring captain to answer for. KP’s first innings showed that he still has the ability to play a long and careful innings if the circumstances require it – 69 runs off 141 balls is snail-like but it was appropriate, up to the point when he got himself out. Petersen’s shot against Hauritz was not a misjudgment – all batsmen do this from time to time. It was a predetermined unorthodox swipe at an innocuous wide ball that would have been out-of-place on a school playground let alone in a Test match.

It would take a combination of Freud, Jung and Brearley to even begin to understand what is presently going on in Kevin Pietersen’s mind. His second innings dismissal was bizarre not because of the foolishness of the shot, as in the first innings, but because KP usually knows well where his stumps are. Leaving a ball, which then bowls you happens of course but rarely to someone of Pietersen’s natural cricketing talents. Was it fear that led him to leave a ball he could easily have blocked? Who knows – but what is clear is that England’s best batsman has lost the plot and that his mind and his emotions are in turmoil. And the cause of this malaise is clear as well. In the world of competitive sport in which young Kevin grew up you have to win and you have to take personal responsibility for your actions. If you make mistakes you learn from them. Draw a line and start again. That Pietersen made a mistake in his feud with Peter Moores and in the near ultimatum that he gave his employers at the ECB is true. But the ECB, and especially Hugh Morris the ECB’s “Managing Director”, should have been far more understanding and considerate and should have reflected that the change in England’s cricket fortunes that they wanted from the Pietersen appointment would not come if they summarily dismissed him. If they had wanted the May/Cowdrey style of Andrew Strauss the ECB had a couple of earlier occasions when they could have appointed him but they chose the very different Andrew Flintoff and then Kevin Pietersen instead. Strauss’s captaincy at Cardiff has been uninspiring and has been a contributor to England’s downfall. Would things have been different if Kevin Pietersen had still been in charge - I have not the slightest doubt that they would. Not only would Pietersen’s leadership style have been likely to make the Aussies think more that the rather diffident and apologetic Strauss. But KP would have led from the front and by example. If he had been captain it is inconceivable that he would have played the shots that led to his dismissal in both innings.

So the ECB have not only denied themselves the chance of having a competitive Ashes series with Pietersen and Ponting standing foursquare up to each other at every match. They have also turned off and discomforted their best batsman and it is by no means impossible that we have already seen the best of Kevin Pietersen and that instead of being the force that leads England to real international success he becomes little more than a long footnote in modern English cricket history. And if that happens the suits in the ECB offices at Lord’s should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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