March 27, 2014

Selectors must be open-minded and open-armed

Picking a team is a tricky job, and recently England have botched it more often than not. It helps to have a captain who understands the importance of star players

There's no love lost between Graeme Smith and Kevin Pietersen, but if Smith had been his captain, KP might still be playing international cricket © PA Photos

February 20, 9.55am. The toss on the first morning of the second Test between South Africa and Australia in Port Elizabeth. Michael Clarke skips down the steps that lead from the dressing room to the pitch. He looks minted in the deep green of the Australian blazer and the famed baggy-green cap. He is all smiles. Australia are one-up in the three-match series after crushing the favourites in Centurion four days previously. There is no sign of Graeme Smith behind him, at least not for a minute or two.

When Smith does appear - without cap, dark hair gelled tight and flat to a side parting, striped Protea blazer: all very Ivy League - he stops to talk to Shaun Pollock, who breaks the news that Vernon Philander is not fit. Shaken, Smith puts a line through Philander on the team sheet that he must immediately exchange with Clarke, and walks on, past the television pundits and the waiting Australian captain to Philander and one of the South African coaches, who are in earnest conversation. Clearly Philander has just tweaked something in his warm-up - hamstring or groin - and just as clearly, Smith is in the dark. Already he has lost Alviro Petersen to illness, Ryan McLaren* to concussion, and dropped Robin Peterson.

Clarke cannot help but reflect with some amusement at the chaos. He was on the receiving end twice last year. Once in India, where Australia lost 4-0, and again in England, where his team lost 3-0. Almost always, selection is complicated by defeat. Certainties one week find themselves on a tightrope the next. Well-thought-through theories are exploded by inadequate performance and signs of mental strain. A single fast bowler can do this to a whole team, as Mitchell Johnson had done at Supersport Park. Spinners can do it too. Shane Warne often talks about the look of fear in an opponent's eye.

Philander bowls another ball, turns to Smith, who urgently needs a steer, and then turns away. Smith calls after him. It is 10.05am. Their conversation is now animated. Smith hurries to the pitch where the television cameras wait for the money shot. They get it. Smith crosses out Kleinveldt and rewrites Philander's name in his place. Clarke, tongue in cheek, asks Smith if he has a team. Smith finds the peace to laugh. An immense level of respect between the pair is obvious. Smith wins the toss and chooses to bat. That night, Smith's 18-month-old daughter suffers a nasty domestic accident. The South African captain and his wife spend the night in hospital with her. With time, she will be just fine. South Africa win the match and level the series. Few captains could have pulled this off. The construction, or otherwise, of your team and the well-being of your family are painfully emotional distractions.

As a rule, the morning of a match is not the time to finalise a team. Not unless the decision is based entirely on conditions of weather and pitch. For one thing you sleep badly. For another your own preparation is disturbed. The team look over their shoulders. The player chosen, though thrilled, must remain coy. The player left out is livid. The atmosphere in the dressing room suffers. Better to tell everyone the night before and let the dust settle. Not that Smith could have done much in this freak situation.

Selection is compromised by the number of people involved. Usually you can bet on captain, vice-captain/senior player, coach, chairman of selectors and any other selector on site. Mostly the captain is encouraged to go with the team he wants, notwithstanding the provisos that come with the buck stopping at his door.

Remarkably, England picked Darren Pattinson, a Victoria seamer who Michael Vaughan, the captain, had not seen before, to bowl against South Africa at Headingley in 2008. But Pattinson was in form for Nottinghamshire and England was the land of his birth. Panicked by injury to James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom and dubious about Matthew Hoggard's impact, the selectors had a punt on Pattinson. Predictably, it didn't pay much of a return and he never played again. Vaughan attempted to pass the buck back to the selectors, who had plucked the proverbial rabbit from a hat. Later Vaughan admitted that they had all got it wrong. It might be the most extraordinary selection of them all. There are many reasons for one-Test wonders but dodgy selection is the stand-out.

It was an achievement of sorts to have kept Pietersen resident in the team for the best part of nine years. A greater achievement would have been to fulfil his career in an England shirt rather than to cut off his head

All of this occurred to me while watching Moeen Ali make a decent fist of batting for England in recent T20 matches. But who on the planet could think Ali a better batsman than Ian Bell? Certainly no one in the opposition! This is not to diminish Ali but rather to consider the confusion that runs through English cricket right now. Bell should be to England what Mahela Jayawardene is to Sri Lanka, a sliver of touch and class around which the bombasts can go about their business. Bell has every shot and then some. He has courage and an increasing sense of relevant application. He needs a run in the T20 side to confirm this to himself as much as to the selectors. They know his talent, surely they can see his worth.

The more I got to thinking about Bell, the more I thought about the last few months. Three tall fast bowlers were taken to Australia to exploit the hard pitches. Given Stuart Broad was England's most successful bowler, and he is 6ft 6in, it is bizarre that the threesome of Chris Tremlett, Steve Finn and Boyd Rankin played just two Tests (the first and the last) between them. Tremlett had no oomph, apparently. Finn, they say, lost the plot. Looking in from nearby, Rankin appeared as a fish out of water. How come the selectors did not know any of this stuff before the tour party was chosen? How come these fellows usurped Graham Onions? A mystery indeed.

Now the selectors, or probably higher authorities even than them, have dismissed Kevin Pietersen. Although I maintain that Pietersen has brought much upon himself, the sheer extremity of the decision, the gall, defies belief. There simply is not enough talent around to treat that which we have with such heavy hands. Of course, he is exasperating and of course he has rubbed up everyone the wrong way. As this column has said previously, how much dissent can a leadership council take? For a time, Alastair Cook had him and then somewhere, either side of the Adelaide Test last winter at a guess, he let him off the hook. From there it became a mighty difficult issue, and yes, a reasonable argument says it was an achievement of sorts to have kept Pietersen resident in the team for the best part of nine years. A greater achievement would have been to fulfil his career in an England shirt rather than to cut off his head.

Without a shadow of doubt, he will come back to haunt those who called time on him. He is too brazen and too brilliant to be kept quiet. The quicker the new coach is named, the better. Let's hope it is not a prerequisite of the job to agree to all that has gone before. Selectors, of which the coach should be one, must be open-minded and open-armed, and if the buck is still to stop with the captain so must he.

The Australians have reverted to type, which means that the captain is not an official selector. Clarke is presented with a group of players for a specific match and then he and the coach take over. The English view remains that it is the captain who takes the herd into the field and thus he should have the casting vote on the cattle to hand. Much is made of the two systems but they have not been so dissimilar during the game's recent history. In the main, the captains of both countries end up with pretty much what they want.

That has not always been so with Smith, of course. But he understood the political demand of the moment and ran with it. It seems inconceivable that the Pietersen situation would have reached its point of no return had Smith been his captain. There may be little love lost between them but neither doubts the importance of the other. From such firm ground comes the foundation of a team that is unbreakable in moments of duress. And that is why South Africa won in Port Elizabeth.

08:43:24 GMT, March 28, 2014: The article originally said it was Rory Kleinveldt who went out with a concussion

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

  • Tom on March 28, 2014, 0:04 GMT

    It's often said that KP is special, a unique talent, and when he gets out in ridiculous circumstances, its said that's just the way he is, take it or leave it. When he undermines coach and captain, that's just KP, take it or leave it.

    His past 4 seasons test averages: 52, 42, 38, 29. Spot the trend?

    We've got to the point where it's "Thanks very much, we're going to leave you now".

    Journos love to talk about KP, it guarantees page views from fans of other nations who generally dislike the England team, but on this matter they seem to think they should have a say in its selection...

  • Randolph on March 27, 2014, 22:09 GMT

    England pciking Bell or Pietersen is really just like shifting the deck chairs on the titanic isn't it?

  • Dummy4 on March 27, 2014, 22:05 GMT

    Australia never looked so bad as when the captain became a selector, nor has it looked much brighter since the time that decision was reversed.

    You would honestly think that KP was the first non beige cricketer in the history of the game, such is the way he has been handled. That no one before him has ever been so hard to handle. Compare and contrast with Dave Warner who was pulled back from the edge of the abyss by the Aussie set-up. Mind you, Australia has its own failures too, Andrew Symonds for one and there is plenty of others getting about, Jesse Ryder, Sreesanth and Dougie Bracewell. KP, next to these guys I might add looks like the class nerd, a veritable angel no less! Perhaps this is more like a Wasim V Waqar stoush and that England should simply hand over the reigns to a new Captain and Coach, a pair of guys that can motivate and bring everyone into the tent. Rather than rule with the stick alone, perhaps it's time too for some carrot.

  • Dummy4 on March 27, 2014, 20:50 GMT

    Logic might suggest that Alistair Cook and Matt Prior's position would have been far weaker in a side that was losing in such appallingly unconvincing fashion, instead Kevin Peitersen, a voice of dissent in a losing side, and the leading run scorer on tour (and of all time) is made the scapegoat.

    It wouldn't have been totally surprising if Kevin Peitersen had instead been made captain again.

  • Lee on March 27, 2014, 20:06 GMT

    I agree that the selectors have made some poor choices of late. We now have Woakes, Kerrigan, Borthwick, Rankin and Ballance awarded single caps in the space of six months, I suspect a couple at least will turn out to be one cap wonders. Two thirds of that selection team has now gone, though I am concerned that the other third got made into the new head selector. However it was not the selectors that made the final decision on KP, that was Paul Downton. He came from outside the set up and listened to all the parties and made a decision on that basis. Was it the right one? Well time will tell, but it was a perfectly rational one. Anyone who manages a team in any context will know that deciding if someone is a asset to that team is about balance. Technical gifts balanced with the impact on others in the team, and the amount of management they need. When KP was great, that outweighed the other factors. Now he is simply a good player, and that means he is more trouble than he is worth.

  • Cam on March 27, 2014, 18:45 GMT

    Mark has it right again. England are on the way down not on the way up. Flower still involved, Cook, Prior, Root, numerous other players either not up for their jobs or just not good enough for international cricket. Giles? Are they serious? Meanwhile their best player is gearing up to play for Surrey. Well done ECB, normal service has resumed.

  • Clifford on March 27, 2014, 15:11 GMT

    Excellent article, points and lucid writing. I find it amazing at this level a difficult person is hard to handle. KP has reasons for his truculence. So provide an outlet for his frustrations with mutually agreed conditions, with a person who understands and isn't intimidated. This is an adult who has negotiated life successfully, to some extent. His expression is different and the fault lies with the stodgy, inflexible ECB, who believes in regulating behavior as well your life. His comportment isn't to their liking so passive aggressively eliminate him. His brilliance supersedes his irreverence. Society wants their sportsmen to be role models which they shouldn't be. Parents should be role models. England has too long suffered from this old school mentality and it's the paying public that suffers. Overt behaviors are passively frowned upon and rigid, judgmental mercenaries, police associations etc just waiting to indulge their sublimated repressiveness, on the selected. Enough I say!

  • Aman on March 27, 2014, 14:43 GMT

    It was ryan mclaren who had concussion mark not rory klienveldt, anyways ian bell class act, born for all forms of cricket including t20

  • David on March 27, 2014, 13:40 GMT

    Hell F - March 27, 2014, 13:08 GMT) you're right. Ian Bell deserves to join the company of Warne and Ponting (who did nothing in India), VVS, Sehwag and Gavaskar - who were all indescribably average against England, and the vastly overrated Murali who couldn't function in Australia. Utterly awful bunch. Not to mention Dennis Lillee who averaged over 100 in Pakistan.

  • Dummy4 on March 27, 2014, 13:08 GMT

    I find it amazing that Mark should favour Ian Bell given his documented travails in India and UAE against the spin. He appears to be a schoolboy cricketer when presented with quality spin. How this fact escaped the author having seen him play is simple beyond me

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