August 10, 2012

Once flawless, England now oddly insecure

How hard will it be for them to get the wheels back on, Pietersen and all?

Lucky to work on the Olympic Games in London, this writer missed (the first such instance at home since 1995) the recent Leeds Test match between England and South Africa. I had hoped the view from afar would be as rewarding as the one from the boundary. But no, nothing beats being there. For all the brilliance of the many modern media platforms, live sport is still the greatest thrill.

Thus, damn it, I missed KP's epic - though this disappointment was tempered by a weekend that included Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt. How spoilt us journalists are, and in the best seats too. The roar in the Olympic Stadium as Farah attacked the final 200 of his 10,000 metre triumph was off the chart, something only matched in my lifetime for its dramatic content by Ian Botham's five-wicket heist at Edgbaston in 1981, England's wins at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge in 2005, the semi-final penalty shoot-out against the Germans at Wembley in 1996, and Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal to win the World Cup in Sydney in 2003. Nick Faldo's 1995 Ryder Cup putt against Curtis Strange at Oak Hill Country Club comes close but Faldo was holing out for Europe not Great Britain, and there is a difference in the collective identity of the achievement. To emphasise this, think of MS Dhoni's jaw-dropping strike to win the World Cup in Mumbai last year and imagine the response, not just in the stadium, but India-wide.

The true appeal of sport lies in its unpredictability. Moments of perfection are mixed freely with the theatre of the absurd. For the overwhelming excitement provided by Farah - and equally by Ennis moments before him - there are myriad examples of tortured failure. Britain is waving its flag right now but the days of despair are not so distant.

This thought occurred to me watching bits and pieces of England's performance at Headingley. A year ago flawless, and now oddly insecure, the team struggled to impose itself. Selection reveals much of this insecurity - not just to those on the outside, who have time to reflect and then judge, but most relevantly to those on the inside, who feel the tension of decisions taken around them. There is no logic to playing a five-day game of cricket without a spin bowler, particularly one so good as Graeme Swann. The South Africans would have fed from it as further evidence of the panic caused by the heavy beating they inflicted on England at The Oval.

England's players would have reacted with equal fascination, but rather than feed from it, would have found themselves with gritted teeth, fearful of swallowing the facts and willing the upside - i.e. win the toss; make use of the four specialist seamers by bowling first; yikes, we had better hold on to our catches; if we don't knock 'em over today, the chance of winning the series will have gone, etc.

By Flower's admission, England went to the UAE last winter underprepared. Not by much but by enough for an eager opponent to bite their backsides off. If you ask him in a few months' time, he might admit that they got it wrong at Headingley too

England's selectors, completely out of character, had chosen to twist. The message was confused: "Hasn't anyone told you, the house will always win?" Then the players will have looked up to the clear sky and thought, "Whoops, shouldn't we be batting?" (There is this cricket saying at some grounds in the world, and Headingley is first amongst them: "Look up not down." Which means make your choices based on the weather, the cloud cover or otherwise, not on the pitch.) The rub is that you could not meet two more measured men than Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower. If together even they can come up with such a howler, be assured the team can follow suit.

Such are the minutiae of sport. A choice here, a decision there; an injury here, a misfire there, and suddenly the wheels are off. By Flower's admission, England went to the UAE last winter underprepared. Not by much but by enough for an eager opponent to bite their backsides off. If you ask him in a few months' time, he might admit that they got it wrong at Headingley too. Of course, the real point here is how hard it becomes to get those wheels back on. Which brings us to Kevin Pietersen.

A divisive player - if that is what he is, and it is a hard call - can be part of a winning team without much ado. But for such a player to be a part of a team that has its back to the wall is another issue altogether. This needs both parties to come together, to see the shared flaws in their approach to one another and to establish whether they want/need each other enough to make sacrifices. Good teams are built on sacrifices, which take various forms but are mainly about acceptance, integration, discipline and respect. Not quite all for one, one for all - that is a paragon born of unlikely idealism - but something that ebbs and flows out of consideration for each detail that then leads to the desired effect.

The audience takes these things for granted, often forgetting that the characters we watch, and from whom we expect so much, are brittle. For all his bravado, Pietersen is brittle. Observe his press conference on these pages and for the quote "It's not easy being me in this team" read "Help, I'm brittle, I can break, I'm lost, sometimes lonely, but I can bat like no other and that's enough, isn't it… isn't it?" Well, is it? That is the question put before those who manage the England team. Is this one player's high maintenance worth it?

From afar, from the Olympic Park, where on a small television screen Pietersen's strokeplay captured the imagination every bit as much as Bolt's sprint and Farah's chase, the answer would be an unequivocal yes. Up close, where the detail is in your face, the answer may be less certain. What a terrible waste if the answer were to become no, a waste both parties would ultimately regret.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Roo on August 13, 2012, 11:10 GMT

    @Mark Nicholas... Wow - going from "Fortess England" to "England now oddly insecure" within a few Test matches... Really know how to write (cough, choke, splutter)... The reality is that Eng haven't come up against a decent bowling attack for years, up until the Pak UAE Tests - now they have come up against a team with good allround skills in all departments.... Work it out for yourself...

  • Satish on August 12, 2012, 13:50 GMT

    "Flawless" is laughable indeed! Their only advantage is that visiting teams (esp. subcontinent) are not used to playing in cold, damp, and overcast conditions. Take that away and they are average.

  • Dummy4 on August 12, 2012, 11:06 GMT

    "How spoilt us journalists are..." That should read, "How spoilt WE journalists are...", Mark. Tut-tut-tut.

  • Rod on August 11, 2012, 16:35 GMT

    "Flawless" is a ridiculous exaggeration, but England were for a while the best of a rather mediocre bunch. Beating Australia in Australia over 5 tests is not bad, even if Australia were having their own problems at the time. And no matter how awful India were last year, England could not have beaten them much more convincingly than they did. Teams like the old WI and Australia were the exception rather than the rule. I don't know why everyone seems unwilling to accept a team as "number one" unless they achieve that level of dominance; more likely, the rankngs will see a number of teams move in and out of that position over the next few years--and to me that's a lot more interesting. Also, from what I recall, most of the nonsense about the team being "flawless" or "invincible" has come from journalists and others outside the team rather than the team itself.

  • I on August 11, 2012, 16:32 GMT

    @ davidpk Many thanks, I was just after some examples where England were under pressure and managed to find a win, instead of either crumbling or being in situations where it was simply dominating another side. I think it's useful to know how a side performs under match pressure instead of just see-sawing

  • Jackie on August 11, 2012, 12:42 GMT

    I'm amazed at the criticism of the England team as 6 Tavares when South Africa have barely been batting at more than 2 an over to set up their innings. That slow run rate is just the ticket if you are trying to save a game. Fair enough. But South Africa have been batting that cautiously in their first innings. Not exactly speed merchants then! As for KP, nobody is getting rid of him. He is getting rid of himself by unacceptable behaviour if the latest saga of the texts to his IPL mates is verified. During the Headingley Test he is supposed to have sent texts critical of his captain, his coach and his team mates. Which side is he on?

  • Soso on August 11, 2012, 10:35 GMT

    As a South African fan i must say i'm dissapointed by the logic england were lucky to be no.1 (yes their media was over the top about it, and got carried away with the comparison of Australia and West Indies of the past), they derseved to be no.1 based on their consistency in their home conditions. What about us we couldn't manage to a test series win at home, were we 'unlucky'? Please, yes we are the best travellers currently, but we should 1st build a fotress at home and then conquer the world. On paper South Africa are the best in the world, matches are not won on paper are they? If we don't win the series (i.e. Lose at lords) then we don't derseve to be no.1 period. We have outplayed England but the series aint over england could still get a draw. South Africa need to show their mettle, until they do.... well....

  • Soso on August 11, 2012, 10:11 GMT

    England this England that, Kevin Pietersen this Kevin Pietersen that, Graeme Swann this Graeme Swann that. When do you put your hand up an say wow the opposition have been brilliant. Without sounding arrogant 'coz we not renowned for that but i hope south africa wins at lords and take 2-0 series win (forget about the rankings they'll take of itself). Maybe then South Africa will get the recognition and accolades they deserve.

  • Soso on August 11, 2012, 9:56 GMT

    This article is dissapointing just like all the articles i've read post the 2nd test match. Not 1 article is dedicated to South Africa on how they have comprehensively outplayed england. And if it was not for KP we would be 2-0 up. Same thing happened in 2003 Makhaya Ntini took 10 wickets at Lords in a winning cause, Andrew Flintoff got a 100 in a losing cause. Guess who got the headlines? Thats right flintoff, Ntini's name only got mentioned in 6th paragraph. I rest my case. (CRICINFO PLZ PUBLISH!!)

  • Mashuq on August 11, 2012, 9:53 GMT

    Great comments, @CduPlessis. If SA become and remain top for the next couple of years, none of their fans (of which I am not none) will speak of a dynasty or of being "flawless" because everyone else will remind them of their past. Anyway, good to see some recognition of the facts by @o-bomb - SA also unbeaten since 2009. It seems it's the media that "make" the teams. I'm just hoping Aus will be competitive against SA while they re-build, but media pressure next year may undermine the re-building, as indeed it will bring a decent England team further down the test ladder.

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