January 22, 2014

Pietersen for vice-captain?

Instead of demonising him again, maybe it's time to give him some of the love he patently craves

"In order to win you must be prepared to lose sometimes - and leave one or two cards showing."
- Van Morrison, "Hard Nose the Highway"

Don't write angry. I've bombarded thousands of journalism students with that advice - Britons, Africans, Asians, Americans, Chinese, all manner of Europeans and Scandinavians, even a Faroe Islander. The logic feels inarguable: emotions impair judgement, anger is the most dangerous emotion. Stand by, then, for some rank hypocrisy.

I'm writing angry now. Angry that the World Test Championship is about to bite the dust - a victim of the broadcasters' vice-like grip, yes, but also attributable to the ICC's lack of faith and imagination (i.e. half-heartedness). Angry at the alpha dogs of Australia, England and India, not because they are advocating a two-tier Test structure, an idea whose time has come, but because they demand exemption from relegation. Livid, frankly, that those same alpha dogs are apparently hell-bent bent on dragging us back to the dark ages of the veto.

More than this, I'm writing angry because of a more pressing and immediate threat to the selfish gene: I'm angry that those interminable Ashes aftershocks have rekindled the possibility that we have seen the last of the best, most refreshing and most inspiring cricketer to have played for my team in my lifetime. You know, that non-English Englishman whose appellation belongs in the first line of a novel about a scatty sociopath: "It never was easy being Kevin Peter Pietersen from Pietermaritzburg…" Prone as he is to being crucified, let's just call him St Pietersburg.

I'm also angry at the upper echelons of English cricket, those who benefit most materially and directly from his ravishing skills, childish enthusiasm, intoxicating positivism, liberating fearlessness and continent-sized ego. Especially Andy Flower and Alastair Cook, who by all accounts have drawn a line in the sand, dumped their foremost asset on one side and stationed themselves on the other in sentry boxes, Beefeaters at the gates of Ain't-No-I-In-Team Palace.

As an upshot, I'm angry at last week's footage of St Pietersburg and trolley trudging to the exit at Heathrow Airport: the pusher unsmiling, stiff-backed but head sheepishly inclined; alone and lost-boyish. How can someone who has brought so much joy and glory to his adopted nation, while richly entertaining so many millions elsewhere, be under siege yet again? Because it's time to play those trusty ancient games - Find The Scapegoat, Bash The Outsider and Nobble the Maverick. Helpfully, St Pietersburg ticks all three boxes.

Right now, bar any active NFL linebacker or Russian boxer who might be contemplating a public declaration of homosexuality, I can't think of a sportsman whose shoes I'd less like to borrow. Not because of the unending tittle-tattle of tweets or the bitchiness of the blogosphere, but because I'd never be allowed to rest on my laurels for five successive minutes.

Most, if not all, of those Ashes washouts have achieved enough for long enough to deserve another chance. They have earned some understanding, tolerance and forgiveness. Yet by some twisted logic, St Pietersburg seems to get less than Graeme Swann, who checked out of the sinking ship (an understandable decision made by someone who genuinely felt he had nothing left to give) then flew home business-class (a possibly generous guess) while his mates continued drowning (not quite so understandable).

Are memories that short, that susceptible to sudden shutdown? Magnificent and unforgettable solos from that percussive bat have turned and/or decided matches, series and tournaments, at home and abroad. Not six months have passed since the painstaking century that thwarted an Australian revival at Old Trafford; barely a year since the 186 in Mumbai that supplied the momentum for England's unlikeliest revival in a Test rubber since 1981. Ravi Bopara's citing of Cook as the nation's foremost cricketer was a sweet gesture but almost laughably beyond the call of duty, let alone loyalty or mateship.

In addition, for all his lapses, and as modest a feat as it undoubtedly was on paper, our wayward latter-day saint topped England's Ashes run-makers. Not by insisting on doing it his way, either, but by adapting and modifying, embracing self-restraint and sometimes self-harm, sticking it out and grinding it out, yearning and straining for substance, abstaining from style. And what did he get for all that sweat and unnaturalness? Rumbles and hints and believed-to-have-saids. Whispers, snipes and snide asides. Noisy no-comments, damningly faint praise and dastardly double-speak.

David Gower was the last comparable English scapegoat. A victim of class warfare in every possible sense, he was driven into premature retirement by the puritans, among them Graham Gooch, whose career might already have ended in the Caribbean had Gower not persuaded him not to quit mid-tour

Let's suppose Flower really has threatened to resign should St Pietersburg retain any limited influence he may or may not actually exert. There is, of course, a foundry of irony in this. Did the latter not fling down an exceedingly similar gauntlet in his self-injurious efforts to get shot of coach Peter Moores? Moreover, during the course of the same shamelessly Machiavellian campaign, did he not he also try to get the batting coach bumped off?

To leave that anger simmering would be all too human. To flagrantly mix my metaphors, could we blame Flower for bringing it back to the boil now that the tide has turned? The rules of scapegoating demand it.


"The trouble with the Hollies was that they got content." So Graham Nash recently recalled of the accomplished Manchester popsters he left to make millions with Crosby, Stills and Young and shack up with Joni Mitchell. To these eyes, that's what happened to England at The Oval last August.

What happens when hunger fades - or worse, dies? What happens once you have converted all your chances and scored all your goals, or an unhealthy proportion thereof? The vast majority of us spend our entire lives missing most of ours, often by miles - but maybe we're the lucky ones. What happens to those who score most of theirs before middle age? Some find new goals; some settle for the nourishment of memories; some lose the will to strive, even live. Without goals, purpose wanes.

For Cook and company, winning in India was a once-in-a-generation high, following another in Australia 12 months earlier. Was the former an Everest conquered too early by a new captain? Cue a deceptive and delusional 3-0 victory over the oldest enemy, triggering a slither into contentment and, inevitably, complacency. The 2013 Ashes was a victory for passive-aggressive, largely auto-pilot cricket, played by men whose ambitions had been more or less sated. Meeting the same fragile but improving opponents three months later was never likely to reinvigorate appetites.

And so to the scapegoat-hunting, and those ritual recitations of St Pietersburg's misdemeanours, actual and alleged: the pretence that the quota system forced him to flee his homeland; that tri-lion tattoo, a slap in the chops South Africans still resent; the tactless texts and twittish tweets; the vanity, the self-pity and the lone-wolf-in-sheep's-clothing. And as the quality of life recedes for most English citizens, so the scapegoating intensifies; as fair game, in a land ever more beset by gross inequality, St Pietersburg is almost up there with immigrants, benefit "scroungers" and Ed Milliband's late Marxist father.

David Gower was the last comparable English scapegoat. A victim of class warfare in every possible sense, he was driven into premature retirement by the puritans, among them Graham Gooch, whose career might already have ended in the Caribbean had Gower not persuaded him not to quit mid-tour. We live in more enlightened times, but it doesn't seem terribly different now. Bones and sense of belonging permitting, there could be a couple more years of profitable eruptions left in St Pietersburg's bat; why waste them even more wantonly than Gower's artier contributions?

Belonging seems to matter at least as much as bones, so something radical is required. According to Mark Butcher, whenever St Pietersburg graces The Oval as a Surrey man, the awed teenagers he addresses hang on his every syllable. I'm inclined to interpret this not as a facile observation but an indication not only that he has much to pass on, but the desire to inspire. And if he wants to inspire, maybe now is the time - and no, not for a nanosecond did I ever imagine I would type these words - to entrust him with greater responsibility - as vice-captain. Should Cook decide this leadership lark really is a bit much, alternatives are not exactly queuing up.

Not only could promotion replenish that permanently thirsty ego, keeping it massaged and focused, it might curb the temptation for its owner to emulate Nash and throw his lot in with those chart-toppers I, P & L - and any other band willing to make him feel special.

Promotion would also demonstrate how much St Pietersburg is valued, needed, maybe even wanted. The last bit is crucial. Not since our lone lengthy conversation in 2001 have I had much cause to adjust that first impression: more than just about any sportsman I've come across, he craves acceptance, affection, Special Onehood and yes, love. Inevitably, given that hopelessly naive seduction technique, stands and sofas have been easier to enchant than colleagues or committees.

I fully realise that all this smacks irretrievably of Nash and Co, joss-sticks and smelly Afghan coats. On the other hand, I'm not against preferential treatment in the right context, depending on the nature and manner of the treatment, and especially when it comes to those joybringers who compel us to contradict ourselves. Sure, they play fast and loose, bet outrageously and always leave one or two cards showing, but just as Australia should have taken a punt on Captain Shane, so England's ace could be worth one now.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton