NZ present settled side as Bell shows sympathy for Pietersen
As the man who struck the six that sealed New Zealand's epic World Cup semi-final win over South Africa in March, Grant Elliott is no stranger to stressful situations. But even he was taken aback by the blizzard of headlines that have enveloped English cricket in the past 48 hours.
"You guys are pretty intense over here," he said at the launch of the Investec Test summer. "I asked Belly, 'is it always like this?' He said, 'yeah, pretty much'." Ian Bell, separated from Elliot by compere Nasser Hussain, was visibly braced for impact.
The most striking aspect of the morning came in the contrast between Bell's understandably guarded responses, and the utter relaxation of a New Zealand cricketer who, though he will not be featuring on this tour until the ODIs in June, is self-evidently qualified to speak for the mindset of his Test-playing team-mates. The afterglow of New Zealand's extraordinary and captivating World Cup has yet to wear off and Elliott spoke with an openness and enthusiasm that must surely be the envy of any England player who longs for a chance to be truly judged on the field.
"The cohesion and team environment we had could be seen through the television screen," Elliot said. "But possibly the best accolade was having mums and dads come up to us, saying my son or daughter wants to play cricket next summer. It was great."
Respect for your team-mates would have played its part too, which is presumably the underlying, and still unspoken reason, for Kevin Pietersen's blackballing from the England set-up. And yet Bell, who is part of the same management company, could shed no light on the dressing-room politics.
"I played ten years with Kevin, we both went through highs and lows, we won a lot of cricket together," Bell said. "I enjoyed my time with him but it's very difficult to say anything. Kevin is a quality player, probably the best player I've ever played with so he does make any team stronger. But I haven't sat in on any of these meetings, I don't know what's been said between Colin Graves and Kevin, and Tom Harrison and Kevin, and Andrew Strauss and Kevin.
"It's no good us as players talking about that and there have been no conversations in the dressing room about any of this stuff."
There's no use blaming the players for the situation that their management has created for them, but whatever way you try to spin it, it's not a good look for a sport that has rarely felt more distant from its public. As Elliott summed up, not without a degree of relish: "It's complicated, isn't it?"
New Zealand shrugged off their internal politics long ago and throughout the World Cup, the connection between the New Zealand team and their fans was real and heartfelt, and stories abound to illustrate the warmth and the depth of that feeling - a primary school teacher in the Bay of Plenty won a bet (50 press-ups) with an incredulous Year Five student that, yes, she was in fact Trent Boult's girlfriend, and, yes, if the class behaved for the rest of the term she would ask him to visit.
There's a significant difference in scale between England and New Zealand, of course - Elliott himself likened his home town, Wellington, to a "fishing village" - but the ECB can but dream of creating such a seamless connection between its team and its public.
To that end, Matt Dwyer, formerly of Cricket Australia, has been appointed the ECB's new director of participation and growth. It is a vital role, in spite of the lumpiness of the title, but nothing compared to the impact that a liberated, exciting, free-spirited national team could create.
More's the pity that, ten years ago, that's exactly what England had. Though only a rookie at the time, Bell was a member of the 2005 Ashes team that won over the country with every bit as much élan as Brendon McCullum's New Zealand have shown throughout their recent triumphs.
"I remember Michael Vaughan saying he'd rather lose to Australia by taking them on than sit there and lose by playing passive cricket," Bell said. "I see this summer as similar, we are going to have to be brave, take the odd gamble here and there, and if we play good cricket, we can start changing people's opinions on the team and start getting people talking about cricket again, which is what we all play for.
"But we're certainly not in the place ideally that we'd like right now."
Indeed. If England are embarking on a long-term project - and Andrew Strauss appeared to imply that a five-year rebuilding mission is on the cards - then the first Test at Lord's, now only seven days' away, is probably too soon to hope that England can exorcise the negativity and find a new thrilling brand of KP-free aggression. But they ought to expect some handy pointers on the merits, and otherwise, of all-out attack, as Elliott fully expects Brendon McCullum to stick to the gameplan that has served him well in all formats and all conditions.
"He's a bit of a maverick, he's risky, but it's great to be a part of that and you have to buy into it," he said. "I know that the bowlers turn around and think 'where the hell are my fielders?', and they'll all be in the slips. But you can't help but be endeared to him and want to play for him. He's been an integral part of New Zealand's success."
So too has the underlying recognition that cricket is only a game - as Elliott himself personified after booking New Zealand's place in the World Cup final. Again, with echoes England's endeavours in 2005, Elliott's first instinct was to offer a hand to his beaten opponent. "I've got a perspective on the game now," Elliott said. "That game could have gone any way, my middle pole could still be tumbling out of Eden Park. It's a game of sport, and it's about having that respect for your opponents."