April 22, 2014

England's Pietersen folly

They were making good progress in building a world-class side, but not getting rid of Kevin Pietersen after the texting saga in 2012 cost them greatly

How does a team fall dramatically or rise brilliantly? What is behind a a sudden shift in fortunes? Is it a fickle moment, a natural cycle gone wrong, or a case of being resurrected inspirationally, or just down to luck either way?

Four years ago, in 2010, I wrote that I thought England would continue their golden run, given their resources and excellent approach towards what was important in their game. They had a vast nursery operating nicely, with two divisions providing meaning, and central contracts providing intent, allowing for competition to rule and for specialisation of the very best to be managed. Andy Flower, I assumed, would have an eye out for the future pathway.

Since 2000, England made good decisions to secure the structure of their domestic game. Then in 2005, fruition arrived with a remarkable Ashes win under a good captain, Michael Vaughan, and a good coach, Duncan Fletcher, and a resolute group of motivated players. It was also the beginning of the international career of one Kevin Pietersen, a rejected, enigmatic talent keen to shock the world.

Then, in between Vaughan and Andrew Strauss being in charge, 2008 to be exact, England hit a nasty roadblock with the notion that Pietersen was Test captaincy material. Peter Moores may, too, have not been of international standard. And so a quick transformation was made. Once Flower and Strauss were firmly in position, England began to blossom again.

All went serenely well - two more Ashes victories - until the moment it all broke down, leading to the regrettable saga around the premature retirement of Strauss in August 2012. This, of course, was the hideous "Textgate" affair in which Pietersen behaved poorly during South Africa's tour of England in midsummer. In essence, on top of the Moores spat previously, Pietersen had murdered his second chance. This time he had attacked his captain.

In that moment, England had a serious choice to make, an important vital decision to follow through with if they were to continue to grow as a team and a cricket nation long-term. Their decision was whether to re-engage Pietersen back into the ranks after he was dropped for the final Test at Lord's in 2012, or move him on for good. It appeared that Flower was against having him back, as was Strauss, who decided to walk away, sick and tired of the upheaval Pietersen had generated. On the flip side, it was obvious that Alastair Cook and Matt Prior, the new captain and vice-captain respectively, were adamant about finding a way back for Pietersen.

We all know the decision now. The fallout became complete in Australia over Christmas. In principle, there should not have been a third chance.

It must have eaten away at Flower, slowly derailing his strong leadership. Instead of taking the opportunity that Pietersen gave them, to move him on and bring on the next breed of top-scoring batsmen, they fell for the prospect of more short-term highs from their enigmatic No. 4. They forgot in that moment about the collective buy-in they needed to be sustainable, about teaching the young how to fulfil their potential, about building and nurturing a culture of cricketers that can last. That is not to clone anyone - quite the opposite: more to encourage them to be unique and team-oriented.

England have neither a captain who instinctively knows his role, nor a coach who knows the top level, nor a new bunch of players who have come through to carry the baton. They have just given cricket a blueprint of how not to build for the future

That they now have fallen so dramatically, so stupidly when all is considered, is due to the opportunity they badly missed in September 2012, when it smacked them between the eyes.

Since then, that decision has caused so much grief and recrimination that England are not only now struggling for positive air and inspiration, they look in deep trouble. They have neither a captain who instinctively knows the role, nor a coach who knows the top level, nor a new bunch of players who have come through to carry the baton. England have just given cricket a definitive blueprint of how not to build for the future.

In hindsight, they stumbled at that moment, they erred on too much hubris, and they got a little unlucky that Pietersen would prove to be such a pain over and over, despite his run-scoring prowess.

It took a perfect storm of many factors to bring England to their knees. It may take a sunny miracle for them to regroup just as quick.

I am not convinced about their latest appointments. It looks like a broken egg and smells like a rotten one too. The damage is done. And if they steal Paul Farbrace from Sri Lanka, that will be a disgusting act. He has been with Sri Lanka three months, assisting them in winning two important titles, and he has a contract until the end of the 2015 World Cup. He would be mad to walk away from his commitment, let alone walk around eggshells in London. If he doesn't see his contract out, he risks not being touched again.

On the other side of the world, Australia have sprung the reverse. By 2013 they were dead in the water. Their administrators had become sidetracked and were focusing on T20 mania, and the national team was squandering game after game. The coach and captain both crazily were part of the new selection-panel experiment. It was a brilliant botch-up. In Michael Clarke, they had a great batsman and leader, yet around him there was no solidarity, no real voice.

Finally, after much self-inflicted pain, sanity prevailed and Clarke was removed from the selection table, Arthur altogether, and someone with experience and knowhow, the resilient Darren Lehmann, stepped into the breach to support Clarke appropriately.

False egos were dealt with, flimsy techniques were discarded. Focus was put on their strengths: fast bowling, attacking and counter-attacking batting, vibrant fielding, and overall a more aggressive approach was adopted once again. The Aussie way was back in town. Yes, they overdid the verbals and the antics, ugly as that was, but at least they stuck to their natural cultural theme. For the most part they became real again.

In no time they were winning Test matches against the No. 1-ranked team. Now, despite their blind approach in the recent World T20, they look as if they could carry on, inspiring many, and pull off the next World Cup, and all in its path. They have embraced who they are again.

England need similar inspiration, yet they have settled for less, which they may deny. What can't be denied is that this last period has been dramatically dreadful and the future is shaky. How long will it take them to bounce back again?

It's a fickle world we live in.

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