Strauss shows his diplomatic skills over Twitter
Andrew Strauss has always given the impression that if cricket had not intervened, he could already have forged a successful career in the diplomatic service. His discretion was to the fore as he considered the Twitter imbroglio involving Kevin Pietersen that has imposed itself upon England's plans for the second Test against West Indies.
Not for the first time, Pietersen is established as the rascal in the England set-up, his dismissive tweet about the Sky TV commentator, Nick Knight, viewed as improper conduct worthy of an undisclosed fine thought to be £3,000 ($4,700) and no doubt a private rebuke. His sin, for those who have been concerned over the past day or two by weightier matters, went thus: "Can somebody PLEASE tell me how Nick Knight has worked his way into the commentary box for Home Tests?? RIDICULOUS!!"
Knight is an inoffensive chap. But he is an inoffensive chap with a modest Test record who when Pietersen's one-day form was at its lowest, questioned his right to a place in the team. Pietersen respects stardom and celebrity and seems oblivious to the fact that Knight was one of the most effective England one-day players of his time. It is curious how long this has rankled.
Strauss' reflection on the balance between free speech and corporate responsibility will surprise those who still live under the illusion that our national sportsmen and women are untamed spirits, determined on the field and off to accept no limits, live life to the full, soar to the heavens, or whatever latest catchphrase their kit companies come up with.
"That is the way of the world," Strauss said of Pietersen's fine. "If you sign an England contract you can have opinions on things but you can't say them publicly."
Having laid down the boundaries, he defended them: "There are good reasons for that. Any employer would expect their employees to be aware of sensitive issues for their employer and that is the way it is."
Anybody who has worked close to the England set-up is aware how extreme that sensitivity can be. It takes a player of considerable character to refuse to become as anodyne as the ECB prefers, indeed trains, them to become: mouthing platitudes, sticking to set formulae, officially encouraged to drain the life from their own personalities. Strauss can speak intelligently within strict limits, so it suits him; Graeme Swann has a maverick's ability to sail close to the edge; others are noticeably suppressed by their upbringing.
Pietersen attempted to recover lost ground as the Trent Bridge Test approached, referring to Knight's fellow Sky commentators, Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain, Ian Botham, David Gower and David Lloyd as "legends," at every opportunity. Or, to adopt KP's tweeting style, "LEGEEENDS!!!" might be more appropriate. The implication was clear: if the ECB had accused him of attacking Sky TV, the host broadcaster, it was simply not the case; it was far more personal than that.
Pietersen assumed that Twitter gave him a convenient vehicle for retaliation in an intrinsically personal capacity, only to find like many before him that the corporate world is now so aware of social network sites these days that, if you are in a certain kind of job, you are no longer as free as you think you are. The illusion exists that you are sharing personal thoughts with your followers, but in actuality you are tweeting into a world awash with rules and regulations. The validity of the argument that you represent your employer at all times is a legal debate that runs far wider than England cricket.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this foolish affair is that Strauss repeatedly referred to the fact it was the ECB board, chaired by Giles Clarke, that decided action was necessary. They had any number of codes to consider: the ICC code of conduct, England contracts, informal dressing room codes on Twitter, agreements with broadcasters, all of them precluding free expression to some degree.
But it is quite possible that no one on the ECB board is on Twitter. Clarke should be, because it could be enormous fun, but that is another point entirely. The board has therefore passed judgement on Pietersen's use of a social media platform that it does not fully understand. It has gained popularity as a looser form of communication, which seeks to capture a current, often transitory mood. Only by using Twitter, and appreciating its boundaries, can you intelligently judge whether these boundaries have been crossed.
"It is obviously a difficult one," Strauss said. "Twitter is a great way for individuals to express opinions on things and to garner positive publicity for the game of cricket. That's where it can be really helpful.
"But obviously we have conditions of employment that don't allow us to talk about everything. We can't criticise the ICC, we can't criticise umpires, and in this case the board obviously wasn't happy with Kevin's comments about our broadcaster. That is their right as a board and so Kevin has received a fine because of that.
"You can understand that the board is concerned with making sure that their sponsors and broadcasters are looked after. It was a tough one. There were shades of grey. But the truth is that the board were unhappy with it and that is the situation.
"We also have our own informal code of conduct with regard to Twitter and generally it has worked very well. You are going to get the odd occasion when somebody oversteps the mark and somebody says, 'Sorry mate, that's outside the boundaries,' and you are going to have to pay a price for us."
Pietersen was part of the group that accepted such guidelines, but then so was Stuart Broad when he called cricket writers during a recent Lancashire-Nottinghamshire match liars, jobsworths and muppets. He was not fined and few seriously thought he should be because such tension between the media and those they write about has occured since the first newspaper rolled off the press. In the blogging era, the readers pile in, too. For Pietersen, though, the rules seem tighter. Ever since he lost the England captaincy he has become to the authorities the individual who occasionally needs taming.
For Strauss, it is just another situation to manage, one that he does not really care about. He does not tweet. "I am just too boring," he said. "I can't think of anything interesting to say. It wouldn't be useful to me."
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo