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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 10, 2012, 21:49 GMT

    pr3m on (August 10 2012, 15:33 PM GMT) Really strange comms here. 1 - this is purely a subject on KP. 2 - with Swann not exactly on great form and our batsmen struggling with spin more than pace so why would Eng deliberately prepare a track which would hinder them?

  • John on August 10, 2012, 21:48 GMT

    @satish619chandar - I've kind of said why ECB won't/shouldn't let KP have time off for IPL. If he is having time off for rest then cool , but problems arise if KP gets injured during IPL or suffers burnout/fatigue. Also , what if Broad,Swann,Jimmy,Finn etc get picked for an IPL and they give KP the time of but not the others. How do you think that would sit with these players? If ECB want to keep him they could say to him to play next year's NZ series and then ECB won't clash any series with IPL from then onwards. IMO ECB possibly won't offer him a new deal as KP has said too many things which have got their backs up

  • John on August 10, 2012, 21:48 GMT

    @Dravid_Gravitas on (August 09 2012, 12:15 PM GMT) I'm actually really surprised at your comments as I had you down as different from your fellow Indians. The thing is if you give KP preferential treatment A- You will be getting other players wanting similar treatment which would be unworkable if several wanted the same series off and B , If you refuse to do the same for others you are saying to players like Swann,Jimmy and Broad that KP is more important than you and how would that work in the dressing room? KP is certainly the one match changing batsman we have but I think the only solution would be to ensure Eng matches don't clash with IPL. Landl has also emphasised points I have touched on before

  • Prem on August 10, 2012, 15:33 GMT

    If England prepare a rank turner that keeps low, will South Africa complain to the ICC, and will ICC sanction the ECB the way it did the BCCI after a rank turner was prepared to combat the South Africans back in 2010?

  • nikhil on August 10, 2012, 14:19 GMT

    England just needs to learn to contain their jealousy over IPL. If you are refusing to accept innovations, you will fall behind. This case of sour grapes is similar to refusing an Ipad coz u invented telephone. If you don't know how to manage a team, learn from India. Take references from how Dalmiya changed cricket once he joined ICC.

  • Satish on August 10, 2012, 10:16 GMT

    @JG2704 : As simple as that.. If ECB wants KP, give break for one series(which most cricket nations gives to its players even without their consent).. If KP seems too arrogant, just get rid of him.. For KP, if he wants to play for England, just shut up and do it.. If not, just retire and leave the space for others..

  • Satish on August 10, 2012, 10:08 GMT

    @JG2704 : Yes buddy.. That is the issue.. KP asked for off to play IPL but England offer him rest against WI.. As if the IPL clashes with Ashes.. If they are ready to grant him rest, why not grant it when he asks for it? KP never said i will not play for England.. It would have been very easy for him to fake an injury and retire as IPL is far away.. Atleast for money, he is still willing to play for England and asked for rest from one series(Not that tough team as of now) but denied and made public.. KP is full of ego.. But same is ECB..

  • steve on August 10, 2012, 9:23 GMT

    landl47 - right on rohan - I sorta disagree, anyone who understands team spirit and ethics has no time for KP, those that just remember his 'smashing' innings want to keep him but they also forget he was a 'bunny' for most spin bowlers for long enough.

    It's true he has a special talents but IMO his playing ones are far outweighed by his ability to create dissent, argument and distrust within a team - those players who backed him in the past were soon discarded by him when his ego demanded he became the focal point again.

  • Jeremy on August 10, 2012, 8:39 GMT

    @scritty - were the current lot ever considered quick?? Pace isn't everything - a bowler in the mould of Terry Alderman would run rampant in international cricket at the moment, and he was medium-fast at best. Most batsmen from all nations struggle against quality swing bowling, that's why Anderson is world-class.

  • Rohan on August 10, 2012, 7:42 GMT

    It could be safely said that opinions are clearly divided..Indians jst love KP, English don't necessarily like KP but they know his existence is important, Aussies are smirking and Pakistani, well their focus as always is on the 'sour grapes' of IPL..

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