Once flawless, England now oddly insecure
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.
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