February 10, 2014

Pietersen down on dodgy knees

He has been sacked by England for off-field issues, but the truth is that he probably couldn't have carried on playing Test cricket for much longer anyway

In all likelihood, due to a recurring knee injury, Kevin Pietersen would not have continued to conjure up more great innings for England, had he played on. There comes a point when producing such magical performances takes its toll, and for Pietersen, his Achilles heel has, in fact, been his knee. It has consistently been a concern for him in the last two years, with no signs modern-day wizardry would be able to stop the ageing process. Indeed, the grinding down of bone on bone must have had an effect.

For this reason alone, the decision to move on from Pietersen is, I believe, a prudent one for England. Of course, there appear to be many other factors at play, and the debate will rage on, no doubt. Yet, for me, not being a fly on the wall at these so-called meetings and affray, the tangible sign of a natural slowing down and of chronic pain is the focus.

I know about knees, as I played a whole career on one that was dinged and snafu-ed after a serious school accident. Once the mechanics of the all-important joints begin to fail, once the arthritis sets in and the mind masks a critical glitch in the hardware, the clock starts its final tick-tock. It's inescapable.

Pietersen is a fine, distinguished player; an almost-great, a player of mondo moments, a man of polarising proportions. He played a colossal part in England's fortunes over the last eight years, bringing about many husky victories, and with a personal century of Test caps - an honourable achievement. He deserves voluminous praise. He also must accept his fate. His best days are done. It's time to cash in his chips. More so, he can now head to another casino for his fix.

If he were to have truly proved his worth, in the medium term, performing another showpiece encore, he should have prevailed in the recent Ashes series in Australia. Yet he didn't look likely to do so at all. It was a messy effort, fluffing his lines even on the most trusting of stages, on pitches that should have been to his liking. While the audience, in particular the loyal Barmy Army, grew weary of the wait for his dazzling panoply, his fellow compadres became frustrated with the building crescendo of expectation and then silence. There were no standing ovations. In fact, a couple left early in the piece, shuffling out the side door.

Footwork, without question, or at least an impersonation of it, like Virender Sehwag shows, is critical to a batsman's success. To access the balls of the feet, the knees need to flex. We see that often with Pietersen as the bowler runs in; a flexing of knees up and down as he prepares for the moment the ball is released. The knees are vital to his game. He likes to get on the walk, knowing that being caught on the crease is a death-knell.

Once the knee is at unease, there is no going back. You are left having to manage a bad situation. England couldn't manage the ego, the frustrated Kevin, while Kevin couldn't manage the internal dismantling

Such was the exaggeration of his pre-delivery routine in Australia, it looked as though he was desperately trying to free up his dickey knee and get the feet moving. It led to his downfall, technically speaking, as he consistently tried to hit from an overly fluid base. To me, the bad knee was infiltrating the mind's space. When that happens it can be a fast end. No footwork leads to trying to do too much, to no balance, to miscued shots, to dismissals, to criticism, to mind traffic, to trying too hard, to frustration, to blaming others. Oh, it's a vicious cycle of endless contradictions.

Once the knee is at unease, there is no going back. You are left having to manage a bad situation. England couldn't manage the ego, the frustrated Kevin, while Kevin couldn't manage the internal dismantling, physically first, the mood second.

Pietersen's runs are his trade, and without a fully functioning engine or back office, he wasn't going to reach a consistently high standard again. Furthermore, Test cricket would only exasperate the toil, accelerating the toll, just as constant one-dayers had previously led to him removing himself from that format. Playing more Test cricket, he may have lasted a year, another ten Tests perhaps, yet with much of the rest concerning him being negative, his ticking bomb was already activated. Time was up.

So as we reflect a little, was he a great? This popular discussion of who is great and who is the best is a fun and natural compulsion. We all love to judge a situation. In Pietersen's case it's time to consider where he sits in the pantheon of the very best, the ones who have excited us enough to get the blood boiling, to speak out in admiration.

Recently, I went through the fun process of selecting my 100 greatest Test players of all time. It was easy up until the last few. My 100 aren't all greats of the game, just the top 100, in my opinion. As I go back and actually count the true greats, the number reduces by half (which I will focus on at another time).

Pietersen did not make my top 100 for he went missing too often, in terms of positive influence and consistent production. That he bounded in when in the mood and stole the stage spectacularly is indeed his lasting legacy - he was a player of great innings. Yes, it was compelling and addictive to see the grand entrances when they came, yet not always convincing of homogeneous repeats, of cocksure longevity. Yep, a good 'un all right, but not a great.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand