May 31, 2012

Pietersen impasse demands ECB rethink

Kevin Pietersen wanted to play at the World Twenty20. England were 'disappointed' by his retirement. Surely the two parties can find common ground?

Kevin Pietersen is not really the retiring type. So it was surely relevant that the announcement of his retirement from all international limited-overs cricket came from the ECB and not the player. It was Pietersen's intention to opt out only from the ODI format, but due to the terms of his ECB central contract, his decision to rule himself out of one limited-overs format automatically ruled him out of the other. He has not so much retired from T20Is as been retired.

It is a hammer blow - a somewhat self-inflicted hammer blow - to England's chances of retaining the World Twenty20 title in Sri Lanka in four months' time. Pietersen, at his brilliant, belligerent best, was awarded the player-of-the-tournament award when England won in the Caribbean in 2010. While he has not always been consistent - he was dropped from the side only months after the World T20 triumph - there are no obvious replacements. Aged 31 and fit, there is no reason why Pietersen's best years should not have been ahead of him. His absence from Sri Lanka is a waste from which no one benefits.

The ECB would argue that they cannot allow individuals to dictate terms to them. They will talk of the importance of planning, the symmetry between the different limited-overs sides, and the worth of stability in the team. They do not want other players following suit and a situation developing where the limited-overs squads become increasingly separated from one another. It is true, too, that Andy Flower's record as England coach is exceptional: the team comes first and he will not allow anyone - no matter how talented - to jeopardise the unity of purpose that he has developed. He has rarely been proved wrong and time may prove him correct this time too.

But the ECB stance is open to accusations of hypocrisy. Andrew Strauss, for example, was not obliged to "retire" from the ODI side when it became clear that he had no future in T20I cricket. Indeed, in April 2009, when announcing details of Strauss' omission from the World T20 side, Geoff Miller, the national selector, stated: "Andrew and the selectors believe his game is better suited to Test and ODI cricket, and it is for that reason he has not been selected in the preliminary 30-man squad for the forthcoming ICC World Twenty20. Andrew is focused on the Test and ODI formats of the game." If that can work for Strauss, why not Pietersen?

The likes of Michael Lumb have been selected only for T20I cricket, while Alastair Cook, the ODI captain, and Jonathan Trott are among those not currently in the T20I side. Why the ECB can take a flexible approach to them and not Pietersen remains unclear. Their intransigence is reminiscent of that of the WICB towards Chris Gayle and Co. Nobody wins in such a situation. There must have been another way.

The difference, the ECB would state, is that Strauss, Lumb, Cook et al remained available for all formats. In truth, Strauss has not played another T20 game since March 2009, even at domestic level, but continued in the ODI team for another two years. He may never have announced his T20I retirement, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

The ECB is setting a dangerous precedent here. With the England schedule crazily crowded in the coming months, it may well be that more players - players who have to juggle the demands of their professional career with family lives - decide they would like to spend more time at home. By taking such a hard line with Pietersen, the ECB have given themselves precious little wriggle room in the future.

Rumours of Pietersen's retirement from ODI cricket have been persistent for some time. He is not rare among members of the England squad in preferring Test and T20 cricket to ODIs, and had the ECB accepted his decision, he would have been able to spend considerably more time with his family and, perhaps, prolong his career in other formats.

The timing is a surprise, though. Not only has Pietersen scored centuries of the highest class in his last two ODIs - both against Pakistan in the UAE - he has also been at pains to underline his commitment to the format. He had just been promoted to open the batting in ODI cricket, and asked about his ODI future as recently as February 17, he replied: "I don't know why you need to keep asking the question. I'm here playing for England; I love playing for England. England gives me the opportunities to sign with Delhi. Why would I give anything up? I'm totally committed to England." In another interview he said: "The next World Cup in 2015 is very much a target for me."

Pietersen is daunted by the prospect of the unrelenting international schedule. The ECB is flogging England players into early retirement and this lack of flexibility will not help

What has changed? Weariness may be one factor. Perhaps the penalty imposed by the ECB only a few days ago, following Pietersen's negative comments on Twitter about Nick Knight's ability as a commentator, was also a minor catalyst: the straw of irritation that broke his resolve.

But the schedule is key to this. Pietersen is already allowed to participate in the IPL and will gain little financially from downgrading his lucrative ECB central contract in order to make fleeting appearances in other T20 tournaments around the world. Instead, he is among several players daunted by the prospect of the unrelenting pressure of the England international schedule. The ECB is flogging England players into early retirement and this lack of flexibility will not help.

Some will blame Pietersen's involvement in the IPL. They will say that, had he rested during those weeks rather than represented Delhi Daredevils, he might be in a better frame of mind to approach the rigours ahead. Maybe, but it is unrealistic to expect players to turn their back on IPL riches these days. They are allowed to do so under the terms of their contracts. The IPL is a fact of modern cricket; it is not going to go away.

The relationship between Pietersen and some of the England team management has not always been as warm as it might be. At the time that Pietersen was pushing for the removal of Peter Moores as England coach, he also wanted Flower removed as batting coach. It took time for Flower and Pietersen to build bridges, and as Steve James reveals in his new book The Plan, the ECB employed conflict-resolution consultants as part of the process. It had seemed that those scars had healed but it is sometimes hard to avoid the conclusion that there is one rule for Pietersen and another for other England players. Stuart Broad, for example, recently referred to unnamed members of the media as "liars" over Twitter and received no reprimand.

As to the future, most spectators will be limited to witnessing Pietersen only in Test action. While he will prove a wonderful draw if he plays more T20 cricket for Surrey, it is hard to see him appearing often in the county game; he has played seven Championship innings since becoming a Test player in 2005.

In the media release announcing the retirement, Pietersen said he would have "readily played" in the World T20, while Hugh Morris, managing director of England cricket, said he was "disappointed" by Pietersen's withdrawal. Somewhere in between those two statements there is surely a point of contact. The two sides need to sit down again - with those conflict-resolution experts if necessary - and find a more satisfactory solution to this impasse. As things stand, England are denied arguably their finest player in all limited-overs cricket. There has to be another way.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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