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With his England career on hold and despite a hint of vulnerability, Kevin Pietersen the broadcaster was full of praise for one of his replacements
September 21, 2012
Busy, busy, busy. England have not produced many cricketers as hyperactive as Luke Wright. There he bustles, a bat to swing, a job to do. Heart pounding, mind ticking. A stocky bundle of positive energy. Plug him into the National Grid and he would solve England's energy deficit at a stroke. It is exhausting just to watch him.
Wright is the enthusiastic one in the office who bustles around, putting the paper in the photocopier, ordering the bacon sandwiches and arranging the inter-company five-a-side, even when an inter-company five-a-side is the last thing anybody wants.
He now shares England's highest Twenty20 international score with Alex Hales, a more languid individual, more likely to be the one who left the photocopier empty in the first place. Both have made 99 in the past three months, Hales bowled on his home ground at Trent Bridge by West Indies' Ravi Rampaul in June, Wright finishing 99 not out from 55 balls against Afghanistan at the Premadasa as he dragged the final ball of the innings from Dawlat Zadran into the leg side for two.
But something else connects them, something more controversial. Both could be presented as the likeliest benefactors from Kevin Pietersen's absence from the England side because of his prolonged brouhaha with the England hierarchy and Pietersen was there in Colombo to watch them as an expert summariser for ESPN Star Sports*, complete, on this occasion, with Union Jack cufflinks. KP has always valued a strong fashion statement.
Pietersen's role as a summariser, with his England career in abeyance and with peace negotiations ongoing in Colombo, is not a comfortable one. But even in the highly controlled world of England cricket, he is entitled to an opinion or two, as long as it is not destructive in its intent. The right to free speech is too often carelessly tossed away by young sportsmen and women whose priorities rest elsewhere.
That is not entirely natural for the ECB, which not so long ago hauled Graeme Swann in for a ticking-off because by expressing his view that England play too much 50-over cricket he might annoy the sponsor.
So when Pietersen responded to Wright's innings by suggesting, supportively but pointedly, that he had benefited from playing T20 in overseas domestic competitions, IPL included - the running sore in his relationship with the ECB - it is to be hoped that David Collier, the ECB's chief executive, and Hugh Morris, England's managing director, do not misinterpret it as further rebellion, and that the media does not mischievously dress it up as more than it was.
"Thrilled for Luke Wright," said Pietersen. "He's been out for ages, he has come back in, one of his first games since the last tournament and he has performed. I totally agree with his sentiments saying he has been out of the game, he has played the Big Bash, bits of the IPL, he has also played in bits of the T20 competition at home and he has become a much better player."
The difference is that Wright played domestic T20 tournaments when England did not want him; Pietersen wanted to play them when England did want him.
To confuse matters, Pietersen then argued, with equal validity, that England's bowlers will be helped in World Twenty20 by the fact they have not played IPL on the grounds that opposition batsmen will be less wise to their variations. Morris and Collier must have wondered if he had suddenly become a convert to the ECB policy to discourage participation in domestic T20 tournaments whenever possible. They would have been better to head to the bar and let him get on with it.
That Pietersen remains valued by the viewers of ESPN Star is indisputable. A poll asked: "Are England stronger or weaker than when they won the tournament in 2010? Weaker, said 76%; only 8% said stronger. "The KP Factor," pronounced David Lloyd on commentary, and so it was. Even if the poll had been closed when Afghanistan were 26 for 8, the result would have been much the same.
|"The night belonged to Wright. Even his hair, all spiky and highlighted, seems to have an extra life of its own. But these days alongside all his energy spillage comes a greater degree of calculation"|
Pietersen has adapted spiritedly to the summarising role, disproving the theory that he only ever talks about himself. But his absence from World Twenty20 must be cutting deep. There was a vulnerability about him as he renewed acquaintances with English commentators, if not yet English cricketers.
"I agree with KP," said Nasser Hussain, a former England captain, from pitchside, in a brief discussion about the use of the short ball.
"Nasser agreed with me? I have almost fallen off my chair, Nass," came Pietersen's rejoinder, a lighthearted but somehow discomforting remark, a reminder that agreements of any sort have not come easily to him recently.
Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, was only fully appeased about Pietersen's commentary stint when he learned that it would not be broadcast in the UK. When his next pre-match remarks were entirely drowned out by music, one suspected that Clarke must have arranged a timely burst of God Save the Queen, only for it to turn out to be the Afghanistan national anthem instead.
Then the night belonged to Wright - he also took Pietersen's England record for the highest score at a World Twenty20, eclipsing the 79 Pietersen made against Zimbabwe in 2007.
Even Wright's hair, all spiky and highlighted, seems to have an extra life of its own but these days alongside all his energy spillage comes a greater degree of calculation. In the opening overs, this was a strange pitch - not so much two-paced as six-geared - but he allowed himself time to come to terms with it. Dawlat Zadran made one leap and struck him on the glove, then later deceived him with a slower legspinner which trundled devilishly through at shin height.
England made only 15 off the first four overs, for the loss of Craig Kieswetter, but they escaped with 37 off the next two, seeing their opportunity and driving it home remorselessly. They pretty much controlled the match from then on.
These days when Wright does hit, the favoured analysis of the moment is that he no longer "over hits," and that his experience of T20 with Sussex, Melbourne Renegades and Pune Warriors has made him a more polished cricketer, a view with which he concurs.
He was only 76 at the start of the penultimate over, but Izatullah Dawlatzai produced an eight-ball over which cost 32. Wright pummelled three successive sixes, including a free hit that was caught at long-on at the first attempt only for Ashgar Stankikzai to step back on to the boundary marker.
It was all more of a mismatch than it might have been, a 116-run defeat representing something of a recovery. But Afghanistan, many of whose players learned their cricket in refugee camps, remain one of cricket's most life-affirming stories. The MCC, together with the charity Afghan Connection, are committed to plans to arrange coaching camps and build pitches under their Spirit of Cricket banner. They could watch events unfold with a deeper sense of pride.
*ESPN STAR Sports is a 50:50 joint venture between Walt Disney (ESPN, Inc.), the parent company of ESPNcricinfo, and News Corporation Limited (STAR)
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