Pietersen's compelling mastery and idiocy
The English media have never been especially adept at responding to national defeats with calm rationality. No sooner had King Harold picked up his career-ending eye injury at the Battle of Hastings than the critics were busy weaving tapestries slamming his technique against the moving arrow, whilst armchair minstrels were composing ballads suggesting that the young Earl Of Mercia should be given a chance to fight the Normans, even if his form on the county battle circuit had been none too impressive and he had recently been shown up by the Vikings as not quite ready for the top level.
The Ashes were born in 1882 when the media lambasted England for collapsing on a difficult pitch against top-class bowling in a low-scoring match. How times change. As the pressure mounted, Lucas and Lyttleton went into their shells, and, from 53 for 4, scored just 13 runs in 50 minutes. How times change. A wicket fell, and then the tail subsided in a quickfire flurry of wickets. How times change.
Losing skipper Albert “Monkey” Hornby must have thanked his lucky stars that the widespread use of social media remained 120 years in the future. The supporters would have tweeted their fury: “Hey @WGGrace, you’re being picked on reputation. Shave the beard it looks cocky when you lose. #engvaus”… “Gutted. Fair play to Aus, @DemonSpofforth bowled great, but we were R-U-B-B-I-S-H”… “Oi Lucas you loser what u doing scoring 5 off 55 balls learn 2 hit the ball u overrated waste of space”… “Wats @ANHornby even in the team 4 let alone captin?! Hes totly usless!! A real monkey wud be beter #dropthehorn”… “ha ha england u not so good now r u wen ball swings we ausies got r veng 4 1880 ha ha go oz go. PS ulyett sucks big time”… “I ate my umbrella and now I feel sick. #greatgame”.
I wrote in my last blog about how Andrew Strauss’ England have lost rarely but spectacularly, and had always bounced back strongly in their next Test. In Abu Dhabi, they managed both to bounce back strongly from their Dubai debacle, and to lose spectacularly anyway. A high-tariff manoeuvre, which they pulled off with rare aplomb. They played three-quarters of a very good match, and one-quarter of a statistics-meltingly terrible one. Pakistan’s tweakers took advantage with surgical brilliance. The cricket was utterly gripping – less than two runs per over on the final day, with only nine boundaries, yet remorselessly exciting.
England, who had been in control throughout the game, without ever hatching that egg of control into a condor of dominance, were rapidly overturned, like a chef who has carefully chopped all his vegetables and followed his recipe, only to suddenly find himself inside a giant wok, being aggressively flambéd.
Cue much wailing and gnashing of English pundits’ and fans’ teeth. We had all waited generations to be able to say that we had the universe’s leading cricket team, a perfectly balanced and multi-faceted unit, and then, just a couple of games later, they were prodding around like a slow-motion version of their mid-1980s predecessors against West Indies. It is perhaps understandable that some of the reaction has been so high-pitched.
England’s second innings generated more statistics than runs. In Tests where balls faced have been recorded, no team had ever lost its last five wickets more quickly than England’s 11-ball hyper-implosion. Those last five wickets fell for four runs – England’s third worst end to a Test innings, and the joint 10th worst by any team. It was the 11th time that a team’s Nos. 7 to 11 had all batted but managed less than three runs between them, and the 10th time that seven players in a Test team had batted and failed to reach 2. (The previous occasion was the first match in the Flower-Strauss epoch in Jamaica in 2009, when England had also collapsed faster than a sticky-faced child’s alibi in a who-ate-all-the-jam-tarts investigation.) And it was the joint third biggest defeat by a team chasing under 200 to win.
Have a sip of water, stats fans, I’m not quite done yet.
Ready? Back on the horse. Giddy up.
After two Tests of this series, England have their lowest team batting average (18.0) since the disastrous white-washed 1986 of the West Indies, and their fourth worst in any series since 1890. Pakistan’s spinners have taken 34 England wickets in the two matches in this series, at an average of 14.1 ‒ making this, currently, England’s worst ever series against spin, and Pakistan’s spinners’ best series against anyone other than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. (Admittedly, this does not take into account the fact that Statsguru’s classification of these bowlers as ”mixed/unknown” might slightly skew these statistics, but if you think that I have the time, for example, to ring up 70-year-old ex-Pakistan allrounder Nasim-ul-Ghani and ask him which of his 52 Test wickets he took bowling spin and which he took bowling medium-pace, then you are probably mistaken.)
So, to cut a long question short: what the hell has happened? It has been a long time since England played Tests in Asia, and a long time since they faced top-class spinners, in form, on helpful surfaces. Even so, regardless of the excellence of both Saeed Ajmal and the insufficiently-credited Abdur Rehman, for England’s recently-record-breaking batting line-up to capitulate so cluelessly and passively is a little baffling. They have routinely annihilated medium-class spinners, out of form, on unhelpful surfaces – from July 2008 until this series, the world’s spinners had averaged 51 against England, collectively hauling in fewer than four wickets per Test. And, although Eoin Morgan is playing his first overseas Tests, Strauss, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell have all had Test successes against high-quality spin and in the subcontinent.
Pietersen, as is generally the case, has been the recipient of the most strident criticisms, particularly for his second innings in the first Test in Dubai, which culminated – if something that only lasts five minutes can in fact culminate, without being a boiled egg – in a rather stupid hook shot straight to a fielder positioned specifically to catch any rather stupid hook shots. But the South-African-born batting whizz seems to have received far more brickbats than any of the slightly-less-South-African-born batting whizzes who have also failed.
To read some of the attacks on Pietersen, you would think that Bell missed a straight ball in Dubai moments after Pietersen was out because he was distracted by thinking about Kevin Pietersen. Or that Cook had plinked his schoolboy hook-flap to the wicketkeeper because he was wearing a What-Would-Kevin-Pietersen-Do wristband. Or that Strauss’ poor form is patently a result of his being discombobulated by concern over what Kevin Pietersen thinks of the recently released Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady.
Such is Pietersen’s lot. He is one of the most compelling cricketers of the modern age, a cocktail of brilliance and fragility, whose batting has often veered between calculated strategic mastery and idiotic bloopers. He played dazzling innings against both Warne and Murali early in his England career (perhaps, with hindsight, they would have tried bowling some left-arm tweakers at him), and scored Test hundreds in both Pakistan and India. Now, after two Tests in the UAE, he has the joint sixth worst series average ever by a specialist England batsman, and second worst since World War II.
Many of his best innings have been played at critical junctures in matches and series, yet he is widely viewed as an individualist. He was heavily berated in the first Ashes Test in 2009 for playing a supposedly over-aggressive, egotistical and irresponsible shot – an attempt to dab-sweep Nathan Hauritz for a single. If anything, he was under-aggressive, ego-suppressing, and overly responsible. As he perhaps was before lunch on the last day at The Oval in 2005, when he could have been out defending three times or more. After lunch, he unleashed the aggression, the ego/confidence and the irresponsibility/calculated-risk, and he won England the Ashes.
Pietersen should not be dropped, and I imagine he will not be dropped in the near future. He has played several important innings in the last 15 months, and England have in recent years tended to stick with players during troughs of failure and plateaus of adequacy. They are, rightly, unlikely to change any significant parts of what was until very recently a winning formula. At his best, Pietersen has been a calculating aggressor with a decisive gameplan, whose speed of thought and action compensated for the unorthodoxies and glitches in his technique. The challenge for Pietersen and his coaches is for him to become that player again in on turning pitches in the fascinatingly testing year ahead.
● Much was made of England’s passivity in that final innings, yet the game turned on a two-runs-per-over partnership by Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, who, with Pakistan one more wicket away from almost certain defeat, slowly turned a losing situation into one in which victory was a live possibility. They played with purposeful caution. England seemed to play with uncertain negativity. Perhaps that is interpreting events through the prism of hindsight. Most strategies seem wrong if they fail, and right if they succeed. England’s top seven have scored at a slower rate than in any series since the winter of 2000-01. When they won in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Abu Dhabi Pakistan’s caution was more skilfully executed, and less cautious, than England’s.
● England’s bowling and fielding continued to be outstanding. They have conceded totals of 350 or more just three times in their last 19 Tests since June 2010 – in their previous 20 Tests, dating back to Chennai late in 2008, they had conceded over 350 on 15 occasions.
● For fans of even-more-utterly meaningless statistics, Abu Dhabi also provided only the second instance in Test history of a team batting in the fourth innings losing a Test by the margin of its score in that innings – England were all out for 72, and lost by 72. The previous instance was when England were bowled out for 166 to lose by 166 in Brisbane in 1974-75. And it was the first ever Test in which left-arm bowlers have taken six wickets in both teams’ second innings. No further stats. Your witness.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer