February 11, 2014

You can't sack 42% of a player

Which is why England had to fire Kevin Pietersen completely. And renounce his reintegration to the side in 2012

Expect journalists to infer how Alastair Cook is feeling based on the surface area of his stubble, the definition in his jawline and the sunkeness of his cheekbones © AFP

Cricket is in the midsts of one of its least edifying periods. The Pietersen saga rumbles on like the indigestible chimichanga of innuendo, resentment and naughtiness that it is. The future and governance of the international game is being haggled over like a packet of sweets at a child's birthday party - amicable sharing seems an unlikely outcome; a major sulk is an inevitability. The infernal breath of match-fixing and dodgy betting is belching all over the IPL. Happy times for the sport that will surely be viewed by all right-thinking future historians as the high point of global civilisation.

Here in England, the ECB, reacting to criticism that its original press release had been lacking in authentic and detailed reasons for jettisoning the ten-time English Cricket Opinion-Splitting Champion, released a second press release, in marginally less obtuse language, including what appeared to be an understandable but pointless whinge about Piers Morgan twittering his nut off about Cook, Prior and Flower in less-than-complimentary language. (For my scientifically unarguable interpretation of last week's initial press release - or, if you will, the ECB's cryptic cross words - see the latest ZaltZone video.)

In its second epistle to the cricketing public, it has banked everything on Alastair Cook's captaincy. Some might argue that, by explicitly backing a currently struggling captain without the consent of an as-yet-to-be-appointed coach, not only has the ECB put all its eggs in one basket, but it has also catapulted the chicken out of the farmyard from a high-velocity Trebuchet, whilst nervously asking each other: "Can chickens fly or not? I know penguins can't, and aeroplanes can, but I think chickens are somewhere in between. Can you get back to me on that one ASAP, please? Ideally before a very angry chicken comes home for a good, hearty roost. They can get messy when they're roosting."

Others could suggest that junking the sporadically effective batting virtuoso with a wonky knee, a sinking average, a seemingly magnetic attraction to controversy and an instinctive genius for working his way off people's Christmas card lists, constituted a necessary break from the past, a fundamental landmark in the creation of a new team, unburdened by the uncomfortably spiky baggage of recent failures and lingering squabbles.

I can see both of these sides of the argument. Both have some validity. I do not think there is necessarily a right or wrong decision, nor will one ever be provable. (There are various shades of grey in this matter, but, as science tells us, you cannot sack 42% of a player.) Whether England continue to fail, return to success, or nestle somewhere in between, Pietersen's presence might not have made any difference. It might have made things worse, or better, or neither. It would certainly have made things more exciting. And more tetchy. Sacking Pietersen is a gamble. Not sacking him would also have been a gamble. In the words of our lord Richie Benaud himself: "Never bet on anything that can talk."

But if things do go badly for England this summer - and they must be thankful they will be facing Sri Lanka and India, currently two of world cricket's less devastating Test bowling attacks, due to the ECB's unfathomable decision not to have scheduled another Ashes series this summer to fill the aching chasm until the 2015 Ashes - then Cook and his bosses will be in such a pickle that they might as well hire pantomime gherkin outfits and dive headlong into a giant pastrami bagel.

Admittedly, this is a fairly sizeable "if". After their Auckland debacle-fightback-stumble defeat, India have now lost ten of their last 11 Tests outside Asia. Sri Lanka have not beaten anyone other than Zimbabwe in a Test series away from their home continent since Murali turned England to jelly at the Oval in 1998.

However, England themselves are in what might charitably be described as "a state of considerable flux", and both of their opponents have the batsmen to discomfort whomever is in Cook's team in the summer. An England failure is not inconceivable. Would Cook be able to, or want to, retain the captaincy if England lose to India? Or if he personally continues to average under 30 with the bat? And even if the new coach accepts the preordained excommunication of a potentially match-winning, series-turning batsman, will a new captain be prepared to do the same? Would Pietersen consider a Test return under a new regime? If he is as driven by his ego and legacy as some suggest, then he would.

Seldom will a captain have been under more intense scrutiny than Cook in this summer's Tests. He will be judged on his results, his runs, the runs of his No. 4 batsman, his strategies, his field placings, his body language, the body language of his team, the leakiness of his dressing room, his answers to the innumerable press-conference questions to which he will be subjected, and how Surrey are doing in the domestic T20 competition. Amongst other things. It could break his captaincy, or make it.

* Meanwhile, some cricket has been breaking out. India and New Zealand fought out a bizarre and thrilling Test in Auckland. India were more awful in the first innings than they were good in the second, and New Zealand, well on the way to becoming a very good team but still alarmingly collapsible with the bat, clinched the win they deserved but were unable to secure against England this time last year.

South Africa enter the post-Kallis era in Centurion on Wednesday against the Ashes-annihilation-infused Australians, in what could be one of the defining series of the decade. It might seem that England's winter could not get much worse. A comfortable South African victory against the team that stripped England bare, however, would be the final wet haddock in the face, the last twist in the winter-long nightmare horror movie in which English cricket has found itself. Or cast itself. Or both.

* BREAKING NEWS: The ECB has this morning issued another press release, declaring that Kevin Pietersen's recall to the England team for the India tour late in 2012 has been officially renounced.

At a media briefing in the groundsman's shed at Lord's, ECB assistant sub-spokesperson Greville Strape explained: "We realise, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was an error to reintegrate Pietersen so soon after the Strauss-Slam Naughty Text Shemozzle, and we have therefore retrospectively re-dropped Mr Kevin from all the Tests he has played since then."

Strape continued: "His place on the India tour has been assigned instead to young James Taylor. Obviously, this decision has retroactively affected all of England's matches since then. Our computer simulation suggests that James would have had a promisingly adequate series, but would not have smashed a dazzling 186 at a crucial stage in Mumbai. Instead, England would have conceded a small first-innings lead, then been unable to restrict a confident Indian batting line-up playing from a position of scoreboard dominance. We have, therefore, retrospectively lost the Mumbai Test, and, with our confidence thus shattered, we took a spanking in the Kolkata Test as well."

Strape added: "However, the 3-0 series whooping would have served to concentrate English minds superbly - without Kevin, we would definitely have won 2-0 in New Zealand. After the inevitable 2-0 early-summer home win against the Kiwis last May, however, complacency would have set in, exacerbated by the team all getting along so well that they found it hard to concentrate on the cricket. Nevertheless, the home Ashes would have been drawn 2-2 with a thrilling win at The Oval securing the urn for Her Majesty.

"The disappointing performance would have ensured that Alastair and the boys would have been fully primed and motivated for the tour of Australia. Our simulation suggests that the now-fully-established Taylor would have dominated the ageing baggy-green pacers, blunted Mitchell Johnson, who, in any case, only got anyone out because we were a bit unfit, and laid the foundations for a dazzling 4-1 series triumph, with brilliant victories in Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney sandwiching our traditional horsing in Perth. The tour would have been so much fun that Graeme Swann's elbow - which, we have discovered, is merely allergic to tattooed South Africans - would have been cured."

Strape concluded, whilst spraying a bottle of vintage 1996 Babycham all over his own head: "We would like to congratulate Alastair and the lads on their historic third consecutive retention of the Ashes, and wish Michael Clarke, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin, Chris Rogers and Darren Lehmann all the best in their retirements, and earnestly hope that Australian cricket can soon find some inner peace despite its current troubles."

* Are you "inside cricket" or "outside cricket"? I do not know what the official ECB criteria are, but I do know that I recently looked up Colin Dredge's first-class statistics for no discernible reason. I think that should put qualify me as being "inside cricket".

Cricket is certainly inside me. It has been like a benevolent parasite in my brain since I was happily infected with it at the age of six, occupying an unjustifiably large proportion of that brain and distracting it from far more important matters, but, on the positive side, contributing its unique and manifold wonders to my mental activities on a daily basis.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer