Botham's beef is beside the point
"We're a sick nation at times," said Ian Botham with all the understatement one would expect from a man who once backed an anti-Europe campaign in the London Daily Mail newspaper.
Botham was commentating for Sky TV on an England one-day victory last year and referring to the way Darren Gough, 34, had been written off by "certain sections of the media". Cricketers-turned-pundits are particularly adept at detaching themselves from the very industry in which they earn a living. This particular outburst from Botham had a special irony because he was sitting next to Nasser Hussain, who himself had been written off (or at least talked off) by Botham when he captained England's one-day side.
For a man who hasn't played for more than a decade and has never held any official post, Botham exerts an astonishing influence over the game. To the wider public, he is synonymous with English cricket. In many ways he is bigger than the game. His outspoken comments (there aren't any other kind) make headline news. They are heard and taken seriously by the game's movers and shakers. If he says a bloke can play, then he can play. If he says someone can't ...
Botham's most recent tirade was about the omission of Kevin Pietersen from England¹s Test squad to face Bangladesh next week. He was outraged, staggered, appalled. England wouldn't have their best side on the field, he said.
It's worth bearing in mind that Botham is the chairman of a company called Mission Sports Management, who represent, er, Pietersen. But that may be mere coincidence. There's nothing wrong with Botham bigging up Pietersen. You'd be surprised if he didn't - they're peas from the same pod. It's just that Botham never qualified his outrage at the selectors' decision by suggesting which of Ian Bell, Michael Vaughan or Graham Thorpe shouldn't be batting in England's middle order. He did say Andrew Flintoff didn't need to play against Bangladesh, but that's slightly off the point.
The one England batsman who has reason to feel hard done by is Robert Key. His 15-Test career has been hit-and-miss, but there have been enough hits to justify him keeping his place. And consistency of selection has been one of the secrets of England's recent success.
But picking Bell for Key is a perfectly logical next step. Bell's Test debut at the end of last summer confirmed all the predictions: gutsy, composed, organised and classy. He didn't go on tour to South Africa only because Key was ahead in the queue.
Bell has made a super start to the season with Warwickshire and is a classier player than Key. He is a better long-term bet, and picking him now makes perfect sense. If he hadn't made any county runs he might not have made it. Key could have stayed, or Pietersen might have got his chance.
But to claim that Pietersen's omission is a travesty is just wrong. It's a perfectly legitimate judgment call. His one-day performances in South Africa were phenomenal, but that doesn't necessarily make him a Test batsman, especially when there is a player in Bell who looks just like a Test batsman and has clearly been next in the pecking order for some time.
Pietersen will undoubtedly play Test cricket, and the odds are that he'll be pretty good at it. But England's chances of winning the Ashes do not depend on whether he plays or not, whatever Messrs Botham, Warne or Ponting say.
John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer