August 7, 2012

Muddle management failing Pietersen

England are stronger with Kevin Pietersen in the side but the ongoing sideshow could even threaten his place for the third Test against South Africa

Like recalling Abraham Lincoln's visit to the theatre and omitting the pesky incident when he was assassinated, it is impossible to reflect on the second Test of the series between England and South Africa without focussing on the latest chapter in the saga of Kevin Pietersen.

It is increasingly hard to envisage a happy ending in the story of Pietersen's England career. From a position where there was a possibility that the Lord's Test might be his last he has clumsily painted himself into a corner whereby he might not even play that game. At a time when England, faced with a foe who may well be stronger than them, require the team to be united and focused, Pietersen's post-match venting was most unfortunate.

Pietersen, for all his posturing, for all his inconsistencies and for all his poorly expressed frustration, has a point. England's international schedule is overly onerous and, despite requests to act on it for years, the ECB has continued to pile demands upon its players. Pietersen is not the first to complain and he may not be the first to retire prematurely. Just as you would not blame the deceased if a horse is flogged to death, so Pietersen is not entirely to blame for rallying against the workload.

It is also not hard to understand Pietersen's disappointment at the leaking of private conversations and contract talks. In normal circumstances, you might expect an enquiry into such leaks but at the ECB such an exercise might prove highly embarrassing. The media, no doubt, will be blamed. But the media rely on sources.

That is not to say he is blameless. It is hard to claim exhaustion and then arrange stints in domestic T20 leagues. It is hard to be aloof and then claim to be alone. It is hard to confirm your commitment to Test cricket and then ask to miss Tests to play in the IPL. Pietersen is poorly advised, demanding and hard to manage. But that's why the ECB has a team of staff and managers. Now is the time for them to earn their corn. In particular, Hugh Morris, the manager of England cricket and as such the man who signs off the schedule and negotiates central contracts.

Pietersen might also point to a certain hypocrisy within the ECB. There is an inconsistency with the treatment shown towards Pietersen and some other players. Andrew Strauss, for example, was not obliged to maintain any pretence that he was available for T20 cricket while still captaining the England ODI side. He did not even play T20 at county level.

Most of all, there is an inflexibility within the ECB that is unhelpful. While the policy of not allowing players to 'pick and choose' - an unhelpfully emotive statement - is well intentioned and understandable, it is fast becoming unrealistic and simplistic. A more sophisticated approach is required in the modern game.

The shame of all this is that a batsman at the peak of his powers could be lost not just to England but to world cricket. Yes, he will play in T20 tournaments but, for all the excitement they may generate, they cannot replicate the variety and quality of international cricket and Test cricket in particular. All cricket lovers will regret Pietersen's premature departure but, in time, Pietersen will surely come to regret it the most. He wants to play in all formats; England want him to play. The two parties should be able to find some common ground.

It is unfortunate for Pietersen's England colleagues, too. While one or two may actively dislike him, most just want to play cricket. Causing such dramas will only breed resentment, however, and Pietersen may be in danger of creating a situation where he becomes too much of a distraction to select.

Either way, England must head to Lord's where, in the most fitting of surroundings, the title of the No. 1-ranked Test side will be decided. England will need to beat South Africa to retain their hard-earned title - something they have not managed in the last four Tests they have played against them, though they can take comfort in the fact that they have won six of their last seven Tests at Lord's.

In time we may come to reflect that England have lost their best opportunity. A target of 253 in 39 overs at Leeds was always unlikely - England have only successfully chased more than 250 in the fourth innings ten times and never in such circumstances - but chances to defeat a side as strong as South Africa come rarely and England might rue not taking it. The run-out of Matt Prior, sent back after embarking on a second that was never there, may well prove to have been a nail in England's coffin.

"After the horrors of The Oval, England went into the Leeds Test flustered and confused - behaviour surely testament to the excellence of South Africa's performance"

Still, there were some encouraging signs from this Test for England. Most pertinently, after a humbling defeat at the Oval, England produced a much improved performance that suggested there is not such a large margin between these teams. They took 19 wickets - something that was well beyond them at The Oval - with Stuart Broad, after a couple of anodyne performances, finally sparking in to life, while Pietersen produced a century of rare brilliance. It is worth noting that, by scoring a century and taking four wickets in the match, Pietersen achieved something that Andrew Flintoff never managed.

There were some concerns, though. First of all, England's close catching was poor. The drop of Alviro Petersen just 29 runs into his innings of 182 was the most obvious example, but several other chances were spurned - one or two quite straightforward - that sustained England's fallibility in this area. Bearing in mind the strength and depth of South Africa's batting, England are making life very difficult for themselves. It was bad catching, more than the 72 overs lost to rain, that cost England.

Most worryingly, their tactics seemed muddled and negative. The decision to drop Graeme Swann was, arguably, as big a selectorial howler as has been made under this regime, while the decisions to insert South Africa and then stack the leg-side field for Graeme Smith were little better. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, after the horrors of The Oval, England went into the Leeds Test flustered and confused. Such behaviour has been rare in recent years and is surely testament to the excellence of the South Africa performance.

There will be much debate about selection ahead of Lord's but perhaps the pitch should be the focus of attention. With England needing to win to retain their No. 1 Test status, there is strong case for preparing a raging turner - England, in Swann and Monty Panesar may feel they have the stronger spin attack - or, more realistically, a green track to help seamers. Against an attack as strong as South Africa that would represent a risk, but England have more experience in these conditions and must back themselves to prevail.

They will be stronger for the inclusion of Pietersen but, sooner rather than later, it seems increasingly inevitable that England will have to adapt to life after KP.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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