January 20, 2014

'Maybe Kevin Pietersen's best years are gone'

Former fast bowler and current Guardian writer Mike Selvey on the Flower-Pietersen issue, England's rebuilding process, and what pace and intimidation were like in the '70s

Excerpts from the show

Subash Jayaraman: Were you ever told to get ready for a broken effing arm during your playing career, or did you ever tell anyone that?

Mike Selvey: No. I don't think anybody bothered with me. I certainly wouldn't want to personally break anybody's arm.

SJ: Was the intimidation in your playing time a little more subtle than that?

MS: Well, there were a lot of very fast bowlers around. Now, there are not many. Mitchell Johnson is an exception. In the 1970s, when I was playing, it was almost a rule, especially in county cricket. Now players are not used to playing that sort of pace, whereas, when I was playing, you did see the fast bowlers. It didn't make you any more used to playing it, but they at least knew what it was to face that kind of bowling.

SJ: Dennis Amiss was hit on the head [in a tour game] but then he made that double-hundred at The Oval [in 1976]. That came to my mind when you say that people actually got in line and were used to playing fast bowling, hell-bent on holding their reputation up rather than gifting their wicket away.

MS: I was actually one of the people helping him off the field when he got hit. It was late in the evening, it was very dark. I know he got hit by Michael Holding in the back of his head, and in a bad way. I think that was in the first innings and he batted in the second innings. He then went to play in an England Test trial and got a hundred in the Test trial, but they didn't pick him, and in fact he had to play a full season. It was a remarkable comeback, to come back from that and next time you face them you get 200. It was a flat pitch, but nonetheless it was a tremendous effort.

SJ: Michael Holding got 14 wickets in the match. It was your second Test match, at The Oval?

MS: Yes. That was just an incredible piece of fast bowling. It was straight fast bowling. He got 14 wickets in the match and none of the other fast bowlers got more than one or two, I don't think. It was an astonishing piece of fast bowling on one of the flattest pitches that I've ever seen.

SJ: During the recent Ashes, when all this sledging, machismo, aggression stuff was going on, everyone harked back to the days of the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers and how they barely ever said a word. You played against so many of them in county cricket. Could you expound on that a little bit?

MS: Earlier there were not many cameras or the focus that the players are getting now. I do believe it gets ramped up by media. The more focus you put on it, the more the players think that this is what you want and the more they are prepared to do it. It kind of escalates on the face of that. If lesser attention is paid to it, probably they will do it lesser.

Some scintillating cricket was played in that series in Australia, and I don't think it needed all that extra edge to it. Is that what people want to see - the pseudo-posturing? Michael Clarke didn't really want to see an arm broken, did he? I'd like to think not.

SJ: How similar or different was Mitchell Johnson from the fast bowlers of your era - the Thomsons and Lillees and the West Indians. How different were the English batsmen now in handling it? What should they have done better?

MS: He is a very fast bowler. It is very hard to compare eras. He was exceptional, I think, most importantly, in his capacity to get rid of the lower order. Brad Haddin's capacity to get them out of trouble and Mitchell Johnson's capacity to blow away the English lower order were a huge factor.

SJ: You played in an era of not-so-great protective gear. Now you are basically wrapped up in a mattress when you come on to the pitch, but still people were afraid to get in line. After a while, if you see the same kind of pace again and again, I would think that for the players at this level, it will be a lot easier. Was it more a mental struggle rather than skill-level adjustment?

MS: Actually the England top order played him [Johnson] quite well. They let the ball go well, they got out of the way well. In the first few Test matches, he didn't get the lower order out. It was the tail that he got out and England were kind of throttled away by the other bowlers - [Ryan] Harris and [Peter] Siddle. He blew the tail away regularly. I don't think it was that they didn't get in line or anything like that. A part of the skill of playing him is to get out of the line, get out of the way. They actually played the fast bouncers quite well and actually let it go very well.

That is how it was played in the pre-helmets era. You see a lot of pictures where balls go past people's noses and you think, "My goodness, that was close." But that wasn't close at all. The natural instinct was to watch the ball, and if you watched the ball then your instinct took the head out of the way. You took the hand out of the way first and then you get your head back as the ball went by. There were very few people, in my experience, who got hit on the head. Now, there is a certain inclination to try to play the ball more, and when they realise they can't play it, they just duck their head and play it on their helmet and nothing comes out of it. Maybe an odd leg-bye. The England batsmen, by and large, kept their eyes on the ball very well, the bouncers. It was the other balls that they got out to.

SJ: It was a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. England went from 3-0 to 0-5. I'm assuming England aren't as great as 3-0 or as bad as 5-0. Have England been papering over the cracks last six months to a year? And was that exposed in Australia?

MS: I don't think you're far off the mark, really. Papering over the cracks isn't quite the phrase I'd use. I think they were trying to get one last series out of a very successful team. It was fairly evident over the past year that it was a team that was past its best. We saw that in New Zealand, we saw in the last summer - they won 3-0 without playing particularly well. Australia were dismal at times. There were crucial spells in the Test matches that England won. That's what won them the series. It was fairly obvious that team was past its peak. However, had they, before they had gone to Australia, said, "Right, we are going to scrap this side and take an entirely new side out there", I don't think that was going to be very productive. I think they were right in trying to squeeze another series out of a team that had just won an Ashes 3-0. But the fact was that it was a team that was collectively past its best - a very experienced team, a very credentialled team, but not playing as well as they had done in 2011-12. They have to now start fresh.

Conversely, they were totally taken aback by the ferocity with which the Australians came at them from the start. It kind of escalated from there. Once they got beaten in Brisbane it was always going to be difficult to come back, because that was such an overwhelming victory [for Australia] after having been in a difficult position on the first day. England bowled very well at them in the first innings in Brisbane. To come back from that was quite remarkable. There were elements too that compounded, which couldn't be legislated for; Alastair Cook's back going early on in the tour. Michael Carberry, who was a reserve on the tour, got in and got some runs. Carberry had to play. Gary Ballance didn't get a game where he could have gotten a game where Joe Root got dropped down the order. You had Steven Finn, an integral part of the attack, who couldn't bowl a ball in the same post code twice. You had Jonathan Trott going home. It just compounded. It rains in the warm-up matches. Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong.

"It was fairly obvious the England team was past its peak. I think they were right in trying to squeeze another series out of a team that had just won an Ashes 3-0"

Quite apart from the fact that the Australians bowled magnificently well. Their top-order batting is still very shaky. In four of the Test matches, I think, they were 130 or 140 for 5 in the first innings. Brad Haddin was outstanding and, certainly in my view, was as deserving of the Man of the Series as much as Mitchell Johnson was. England could not respond to their lower order. Therein lies the difference.

SJ: With Trott gone, [Graeme] Swann retired and Steven Finn sent back, are England in full rebuild mode?

MS: Yes. They have to start over, and sort of started, given that they had a limited squad in Sydney, with Ballance coming in and with no Swann, Panesar played. [Boyd] Rankin played. [Ben] Stokes played in Adelaide, of course. That was one of the fortunate things that came out of the tour. Stokes came into the side because they needed two spinners in Adelaide, and they found a Test cricketer. You have seen some sort of evolution. Jonny Bairstow keeping wickets. I don't think that would last, but they have moved on from Matt Prior. It might just as well be that Jos Buttler is the next one. There is a definite and obvious rebuilding to be done around the nucleus of the players who will still serve them well.

SJ: You had written a piece in the Guardian, which basically said that Andy Flower wants Kevin Pietersen out of the team.

MS: Perhaps I didn't make myself clear on what I wanted to say. When Andy Flower looks to how he can best develop the side in future, if he decides that the future of the England team can only progress if Kevin Pietersen is not in the side… in other words, the long-term future of the England side has to be without Kevin Pietersen.

SJ: The actual line that you wrote is: "Flower is thought to believe that the future development of the team can only happen without Kevin Pietersen."

MS: If he thinks it can only be developed without Kevin Pietersen, and Paul Downton, the new managing director, or James Whitaker disagree with that and decide that we are going to go on selecting Kevin Pietersen, then that would make Andy Flower's position difficult, wouldn't it? That is what I meant by that - that Andy Flower will find it difficult to carry on under those circumstances, simply because his vision of how the game should progress would not involve him, if that is the way he thinks. That is why I said Kevin Pietersen's future could depend on that. That is not to suggest that it is Andy Flower against Kevin Pietersen. That's not the case.

He has managed Kevin Pietersen for seven years. Whatever his personal feelings might be, I have no idea what they are. He has managed him for seven years in one way or another - four to five years as director of the England team and a couple of years as batting coach. He has been involved all that time and got through it. You don't suddenly get this antipathy. Any decision Andy Flower makes or will make will be based purely on how he sees the future of the England cricket team, not based on his personal feelings in one way or another for Kevin Pietersen.

SJ: My understanding of reading that piece from you was that Andy Flower actually believes that the team would be better off, or the team that he wants to shape going forward will be better off without Kevin Pietersen. It is already a fully formed thought in Andy Flower's mind.

MS: Clearly, he will have his own ideas. My view is that Andy Flower is an extremely able coach. He won three Ashes series, a World Twenty20 and a series in India. That is a pretty strong credential against one pretty embarrassing defeat in Australia. I think he could actually become a stronger director of cricket on the basis of what he has learnt here.

With regards to Kevin Pietersen, he is 34 years old, and you could reasonably say that his best days are behind him. He played in 2012 three of the finest innings of this or any other era by an England batsman - in Colombo, Headingley and in Mumbai - all in the space of six months. Since then it has tailed off. He is looking for 2017, as he keeps saying, against South Africa. That is another three years. He will be 37 years old. Is that going to be the future? Have we seen the best of him?

You have to then factor in what is going to happen with this IPL auction that is coming up, because he hasn't had his contract renewed with the Delhi Daredevils, has he? The next round of auction has three-year contracts. I don't think they will pay big money for someone who will play only half the time. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem this season, but next season - after World Cup in 2015, England have a Test tour in the Caribbean in April-May, which is during the IPL season. That is the series that precedes the next Ashes series. England would say, "Will you go and play IPL when we are building for the Ashes?" You can see how that can become an issue and we will find out about that in the middle of next month, when the auction is. All these things have to be taken into consideration when you are looking into the future. It is not just Kevin Pietersen who is under scrutiny, everybody is under scrutiny. I suppose in his case, he is more likely to be under scrutiny, because of the nature of his other commitments and his age.

SJ: Rather than making it Andy Flower v Kevin Pietersen, can we look at an overall picture where you have a coach/manager and a very good player? Is it easy to find an able coach, or easier to find a great player?

MS: It is very easy for us to sit on the periphery and say what a great player he is and that he must play. But sometimes you must make decisions based on what is best for the core of the team. Those things we are not privy to any more than anybody else outside the dressing room.

SJ: In professional sports, the bottom line is about wins or losses. When you look at it in that sense, would you want to stick with a player who is going to give you a better chance at winning? And in the history of sport we have seen that in team locker rooms people don't get along but they are still professionals who have to play together and they do.

MS: Then you have to make a value judgement on whether the player is getting better or whether he is past his peak. That's what I am trying to suggest to you here - that maybe Kevin Pietersen's best years are gone. I said to Andrew Strauss in Australia, "Supposing Michael Vaughan's knee hadn't gone and Marcus Trescothick hadn't had his problems [in 2006], how many Tests do you think you and Alastair Cook would have played?"

Both of those players came in on the back of those circumstances. Nobody would have said, "Andrew Strauss, at this stage, is a better player than Michael Vaughan, I think he will do well for us." The only time that has happened, that I can think of, curiously, is when Kevin Pietersen replaced Graham Thorpe in 2005.

Somewhere along the line it is possible to make a value judgement. That is what the selectors are paid to do. It may be that they decide that Kevin Pietersen is past his peak. In two years' time that we are aiming for, who is going to come in and bat at No. 4 for England? Is it going to be the 36-year-old, or is it going to be someone who we are going to bring in now, with 13-14 Test matches before then?

It may be that they decide that Kevin Pietersen is the right man. It may be that Andy Flower decides that. I am not suggesting that Andy Flower will preclude the idea of Kevin Pietersen being in any future side. All I was trying to say is that if he decides Kevin Pietersen is not the way to go, then he would do it. And if other people decided that he is the way to go, then that would make Andy Flower's position difficult. I might have written it slightly clumsily.

SJ: Listener Sriram wants to know what was running through your head when you made your debut and took the wickets of Roy Fredericks, Vivian Richards, Alvin Kallicharran, and in the second innings the wickets of [Gordon] Greenidge and Clive Lloyd.

MS: I peaked early, didn't I? I wasn't selected originally. I played because someone got injured. I turned up around Wednesday lunch time for a Thursday start. We had lunch, we had a net. The next day we turned up and played the Test match. I found myself opening the bowling against Gordon Greenidge, who I played against since he was about 15 years old for Hampshire 2nds and Hampshire Juniors side. It was just like me bowling to Gordon again. I have played him, and it was a very strange thing to bowl to Gordon again. I struck early, luckily. I am glad I did. I got Roy Fredericks caught in the first over. I bowled Viv out and bowled Kalli out. Suddenly I felt I was in the game here. I never felt nervous at all, because there was a familiarity to it. I think that's because of the lack of a big build-up. The Test match now seems to last ten days - all the hoo-ha beforehand, practice days and interviews. You used to turn up straight from county games for a Test match.

SJ: But you and England ran into the buzz-saw that is Vivian Richards at The Oval, who makde a double-hundred. And then you went to Bombay and then you never played another Test for England.

MS: Well, The Oval was a one-off really. I didn't bowl that many overs there either. "Deadly" Derek [Underwood] bowled 65-70 overs. It was that kind of a pitch, certainly new to me - didn't swing. Had we known about reverse swing in my days… that is something I wish we had known. The weather conditions were tailor-made for reverse swing.

We went to India and there were four warm-up sides against the zonal teams. We played in Pune, Jaipur, Jalandhar and Indore, I think. In those games, I bowled with John Lever, and I bowled all right. He got in to the first team. He got ten in the game and a half-century. That was the end of it until I came in for the last Test match, quite literally just before the toss after Chris Old pulled out because of an injury. I had hardly bowled for two and a half months. These were pitches where you bowled a couple of overs with the new ball and then the spinners would come on. So I hadn't bowled a ball. I went around the park and that was the end of it.