July 16, 2012

Pietersen outcry no false alarm

The ECB should be careful before ignoring Kevin Pietersen's complaints about the schedule for contracted England players

Kevin Pietersen has sounded the alarm for English cricket. The only problem is that he is widely regarded as highly unreliable, the sort of upmarket alarm that cost a fortune when it was installed, but which came without a service contract and has become rather temperamental.

KP alarms are the sort that can scream away at 130 decibels, flash multi-coloured lights and even cause virtual reality attack helicopters to appear above the drive without the neighbours taking the slightest bit of notice.

When the KP alarm goes off, you don't sense the danger, you just carry on much as before, grumbling at the disruption and blocking the commotion from your mind. That is pretty much what the ECB is doing after Pietersen's premature retirement from international one-day cricket.

"I can't go on like this," cried Pietersen. "I need more time off. And, what's more, I want to play all the IPL."

"You must go on like this," replied the ECB. "When was your last service? If we can't rely on you never to go off, we will have to replace you with another one."

With that, the ECB believes it has controlled the problem. Andy Flower, the team director, has stressed that the ECB's stipulation that England players must be available for all three formats of the game is intended to protect English cricket "in its entirety," adding: "We have to take personalities out of the equation."

Geoff Miller, the national selector, has growled that England can only pick players who are available, intimating that unless Pietersen returns sheepishly to the fold, with no guarantees obtained, he will not be in England's provisional 30 for World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka in September.

To rule out Pietersen's involvement now is unnecessary. It would be a generous - and correct - gesture to name him in the squad this week to allow every chance of reconciliation before the final squad of 15 is announced nearer to the tournament.

No player is bigger than the game. The message is clear and necessary. It is a message - embracing team ethic, discipline and the general good - that has carried England to No. 1 in the world and which clearly has much to commend it. But it is only part of the story.

It also takes quite an ego for Pietersen to allow his representatives to float an alternative suggestion that he will make himself available for England's one-day fixtures if he is allowed to fulfil the whole of his $2m (£1.3m) IPL contract with Delhi Daredevils next season and skip England's May Tests against New Zealand in the process.

That is the suggestion coming from sources at the ECB.

But the fact is that the KP alarm has gone off for a reason. New Zealand will probably field a weakened side in England next May just as West Indies did this summer. All because the ICC will not fight for an IPL window and English cricket prefers to pretend that IPL does not exist.

Whether the ECB believes that this strategy is a long-term solution nobody really knows. One of the side effects of England's rise in the rankings is that David Collier, the ECB chief executive, and Giles Clarke, the chairman, now successfully maintain such a low profile that decisions are rarely held up to public scrutiny. Even Hugh Morris, manager director of the England cricket team, prefers to work in the shadows, seeking to keep his meeting with Pietersen's representatives from public view.

One element of England's unspoken policy is simultaneously to reward and make demands of its players to such an extent that their involvement in IPL is discouraged. But Pietersen's alarm call this year could be sounded by Stuart Broad or Eoin Morgan next, especially as all the signs are that a high-profile T20 tournament in England is not about to happen. It is natural to to want to experience the best.

The amount of cricket played by England to protect its corner is simply unsustainable. The English counties are under severe financial strain and the only answer the ECB has come up with is to ask the same 15 players or so to play international cricket until they drop.

It is a good bet that Flower himself will soon be given a tour off. He will not demand it, or threaten to quit like Pietersen, but he will get it all the same and it would be naive to imagine that negotiations, albeit more gentlemanly, will not take place.

Pietersen's cry that he has "never been looked after" was tactless; England's cricketers are highly rewarded and the great thing about rotation is that it does not affect the bank balance. His talk of needing more time with the family is unconvincing when he yearns to spend two months at IPL or jets off, as he did last month, on a weekend return to Johannesburg to watch the rugby.

But Pietersen's game relies on flair and inspiration as much as technical excellence; on an incalculable belief in his own ability, on the chance to be play in the most high-profile tournaments. He constantly needs to refresh his self-esteem, to feel himself a celebrity sportsman in a glamorous life, and however much this may affront national pride he does not achieve that against New Zealand in the drizzle of an English May.

To feel stale and put-upon weeks before a Test series against South Africa will have been enough for the alarm to sound. His reaction can easily be viewed as disproportionate, but that is the thing about alarms. They have two noises - loud and none.

For England to enter a Test series against South Africa with their most celebrated batsman in dispute with the board would normally not auger well. For Pietersen, as his freewheeling double hundred for Surrey against Lancashire at Guildford on Friday suggested, it could be entirely different.

About to face the country of his birth, he is emotional, impassioned, on edge and in need of adulation. He might well prove to be in just the place that he wanted to be. But, whatever the outcome, the ECB should not ignore the ringing in its ears.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo