August 25, 2014

What if Pietersen had played for England this summer?

Would he have fared better than the incumbent middle-order batsmen, Root and Ballance?

Leading up to the 2014 season, Pietersen's numbers were average compared to his glory days © Getty Images

We were regularly invited, throughout the dark period when England lost seven Tests out of nine earlier this year, to imagine a better, happier world: an England team with Kevin Pietersen in it. Well, let's imagine it. Not flippantly or sarcastically but thoughtfully, as a historian would approach a legitimate "what if?" or "counter-factual". A real historian would calculate the cost - or benefit - of KP's absence methodically rather than emotionally; he would be guided by evidence rather than personality; and though he would necessarily have to make assumptions and projections, our historian would acknowledge where facts ended and where informed predictions began.

First, who would Pietersen have played instead of? In his final Test, in Sydney in January this year, Pietersen played as one of three middle-order batsmen: Ian Bell and Gary Ballance being the other two (Joe Root was left out). Changing the side's structure to create an extra middle-order batting spot was extremely unlikely: the selectors knew that in the absence of a genuine spin alternative, Moeen Ali had to bat at six as the spinning allrounder.

This left space for only five batsmen, two of them openers. So, coming into the two home series against Sri Lanka and India, England had four players vying for three middle-order spots: Pietersen, Bell, Ballance and Root. From a purely cricketing perspective, who should they pick?

As the most complete and technically accomplished player, comparatively unscathed by injury and with many miles left on the clock, Bell was a certainty to play. So in order to find room for Pietersen, England would have had to prefer him to either Root or Ballance - the two brightest young hopes of English cricket.

We will come to what actually happened in a moment. First, what was the information available at the time, before the start of the 2014 home Tests? Ballance had just made his debut, in the uniquely brutal circumstances of a 5-0 whitewash in Australia. Despite not making a big score, he looked at home - "There's something there," most people thought. It would have been a ruthless decision to discard him after just one match - perhaps one with damaging long-term consequences.

In the case of Root, it was more a question of making sure that a precious resource was nurtured in the best surroundings. In his short career, Root had already been up and down the batting order like a yo-yo, an experience so disorientating that even Root, a notably resilient character, ended up out of form and dropped. But no one seriously envisaged an England team without Root - not in the long, medium or short term. For Root the sine qua non was a spell in a settled position, preferably at No. 5, where he enjoyed such exceptional success in his early Tests.

In time, if Pietersen exercises restraint and exhibits more magnanimity, memories of his pomp will haze over the uncomfortable final chapter of his England career

What of Pietersen? No one admired Pietersen at his best more than this columnist (as I explored here). What was the likelihood, however, of Pietersen being at his best in 2014? His long-term knee injury had caused him visible anguish throughout the winter Ashes series. More ominously there were signs that his powers were in decline. True, they had once bordered on the miraculous. Nevertheless, downwards is downwards.

Let's be scrupulously fair and widen the period of evidence well beyond the anomaly of facing Mitchell Johnson's thunderbolts in 2013-14. In his last 16 Tests, Pietersen averaged 36. In his final 54 Tests, he averaged 43 with seven hundreds. That sounds healthy enough. But compare it to his first 50 Tests, with 16 hundreds at an average of over 50. Remarkably for a player of such audacious talent and unique style, Pietersen's career was actually very predictable: a high plateau followed by a gradual falling off. In broad terms, there were very few oscillations. Beneath all the headlines, when told in numbers, the story is actually very simple.

Now for the counter-factual: how would England's summer have fared with Pietersen instead of Root or Ballance? Root scored 777 runs at an average of 97. Ballance has accumulated 704 runs at 70. Both were absolutely central to England's turnaround. It is hard to see England beating India 3-1 without them. Their runs first steadied then galvanised English cricket when it was reeling and on the ropes.

Theoretically, of course, it is possible that Pietersen might have done even better. But what pointers can we follow from his actual performances over the same period of time? He has not played a single first-class match. Instead he has played only T20. Even specialising in one form hasn't helped. All taken together (the T20 Blast, the Caribbean Premier League and the IPL), Pietersen averages in the mid-20s in 2014, significantly below his career T20 record. Moreover, many of his performances this summer have happened under the tutelage of his personal mentor - Graham Ford, who happens to be Surrey's head coach. Playing county cricket in his home city of London, watched by his preferred choice of coach, conditions were tailor-made for a bumper summer of runs - and yet it hasn't happened.

The youth-led environment of the England team is unlikely to have suited Pietersen so well. After all, it was a clash with Peter Moores, now restored as head coach, that led to Pietersen's sacking as England captain in 2008. And Pietersen's relationship with Alastair Cook had disintegrated by the end of the 2013-14 Ashes. Instead of playing in the welcoming atmosphere of Ford's Surrey, Pietersen would have found himself in an environment prickly with personal baggage.

So while we cannot know for certain how many runs he would have scored, we can deduce with total confidence that if Pietersen had played instead of either Ballance and Root, all available evidence suggests it is likely that the England team would have been weaker rather than stronger.

Nonetheless, the "Bring back KP!" lobby (though temporarily silenced) has had a very noisy summer. Pietersen has been offered every kind of platform to make his case, including a newspaper column. After the series defeat against Sri Lanka, the front page of his paper's sport supplement proudly announced: "How to fix England - by Kevin Pietersen." All this has been magnified by various social-media storms and campaigns on Pietersen's behalf.

The target of all this, of course, has been Cook. Even shrewd judges perceived Cook's mid-season struggles as a direct consequence of the sacking of Pietersen. But while the target was Cook, the victim of the "Bring back KP!" campaign has been Pietersen himself.

The media had things upside-down. It was imagined that England's decision to take the high moral ground in its sacking of Pietersen (by citing the importance of "team ethics") had accidentally but cruelly burdened Cook with an extra pressure - as though an already decent man had to carry an unnecessary moral weight.

In fact, it was the other way around. The anti-Cook brigade, by citing Pietersen as the saviour in waiting, accidentally burdened their own man - even as he struggled for runs in T20 leagues around the world.

I hope the situation is remedied. Pietersen deserves to be remembered as a thrilling, world-beating batsman, arguably England's finest in living memory. He will not be the last maverick to end his international career in an imperfect way. In time, if he exercises restraint and exhibits more magnanimity, memories of his pomp will haze over the uncomfortable final chapter of his England career.

Last week it was good to hear Sir John Major commenting on the death of the former Irish premier Albert Reynolds, a political contemporary of Major's. No politician suffered worse treatment from his critics than Major. And none has enjoyed a greater bounce in popularity since leaving office. The secret: he has kept a benevolent and dignified distance from current events.

It is true that Major and Pietersen could hardly be more different as people. But Major, as a lifelong Surrey fan, is ideally placed to pass on some tips.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dheeban on August 30, 2014, 6:41 GMT

    I don't know for sure if Pietersen would have scored more runs than Balance or Root. But what I know for sure is Pietersen was by far the best batsman in England. If you think somebody is the best, you have to think he has as good or a better chance to fare than others. That was the case with Tendulkar in India. Sure, in some series other batsmen fared better than him. But he was the best batsman in the world and more often than not he fared better than other batsmen. If we want to go by Smith's logic, then we could argue that Pietersen would have scored more runs than Bell. I don't think in Bell's case we can argue that Bell couldn't have been left out because of his qualification as batsman and Pietersen may not have found place because Balance and Root would go on to perform as opposed to Pietersen's qualification. Pietersen should be the first batsman who should be written down in the playing XI and others get picked around him.

  • Zain on August 28, 2014, 6:49 GMT

    Players like Pietersen come around once in 20 years. I understand the tantrums & tensions caused by his presence, but that is where management steps in and restores order.

    A summer out in the cold would have been just the tonic for KP to realise he still belongs amongst the mortals.

    I think he fully understands the stakes at play - especially with 2015 World Cup just around the corner.The ECB should keep him in the picture

  • Maxie on August 27, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    "If he exercises restraint and exhibits more magnanimity...[John Major] kept a benevolent and dignified distance from current events".

    What exactly are you referring to? In his latest Telegraph piece, Pietersen says:

    "England did fantastically well to turn the Test series against India into a brilliant 3-1 victory and I am delighted for Alastair Cook. He deserves credit for the change in England's fortunes".

    Exactly how much more benevolent and magnanimous do you want?

    The Major comparison is bogus anyway, because Major was not knifed behind closed doors. He was defeated in a general election. He could have no cause for complaint. Yet you expect Pietersen, who was brutally sacked without explanation, to be jolly and kind about the ECB. As if they're magnanimous to him...

  • Master on August 26, 2014, 18:32 GMT

    Cmon cricinfo give me the right of reply here! Comment says my point is silly. But all I am saying is that England were number 1 in the world when they played 4 bowlers in their test side, and when they abandoned that formula they went 10 straight tests without a win. If you are lucky enough to have a top 6 batter worth his place in the side for his batting alone who can also bowl (e.g Kallis, Watson, Steve Smith) all well and good. If not then dont weaken your batting to accomodate an extra bowler.And especially dont weaken your batting and your bowling to accomodate Stuart Binney or Jadeja who are neither best 6 bats in India or best 4 bowlers. Constantly amazes me how England pick 5 bowlers in tests when 4 will do, but in ODIs when you HAVE to use 5 bowlers Rngland go eith a Root or Bopara and cross their fingers. So the real question is wther KP is among the 6 best bats in England. 23 tons says yes. We knew he was egocentric, naif, difficult etc way back in 2004 nothing has changed

  • Richard on August 26, 2014, 14:04 GMT

    Nicely done, Mr Smith - especially the comparison with Major in his dignified dotage at the end.

    As a Surrey fan like Major, I look forward to the 2nd in the series, "What if Pietersen had played county cricket for Surrey this summer?"

  • Steven on August 26, 2014, 4:38 GMT

    It's prob agood thing kp is gone yes I'm sure they could of got afew more years out of. It with some one that disruptive it's prob best that he's gone cos let's face it the young players coming in haven't let England down to be honest and that tells me England don't need kp anymore as good as he is everyone's replaceable especially with the talented batsmen coming through in England that has given the selectors the rope to get rid of atalented but disruptive person in kp that's prob relieved the selectors cos if the depth of talent was less they would of had no choice but to persist with kp but in this situation the younger players coming we're not much worst then kp so in that case they would have been more cooperative so that means they come in and you get rid of the trouble maker kp I'm with England authorities on this one

  • Dummy4 on August 26, 2014, 1:41 GMT

    On paper, KP was still the right option to have in the side - his omission was hardly to do with form, so why use that as a reason now? Surely he would have been playing first class cricket if he was still in the test frame, so the T20 stuff is pretty irrelevant. It's easy to use hindsight, so here's some hindsight thrown back at you: why couldn't Ballance have opened? He has the resolute look of an opener and he was effectively opening most innings vs Sri Lanka and India anyway, as either Robson or Cook departed early. Then you have Bell 3, KP 4, Root 5. Would a team with that batting combination have lost to SL, or been 1-0 down vs India? Probably not.

  • Jake on August 26, 2014, 0:24 GMT

    cricket is such a mental game. the dressing room needs to be positive environment. England need to keep on building on this. they have some good young talent. as well as some experienced players. the balance looks right. i think KP would have upset the balance.

  • Daniel on August 25, 2014, 21:53 GMT

    One could argue he would have fared better than the other 4 in the top 6.

    In reality its disappointing he gave up on anything more than hit and giggle cricket.

  • Jeff on August 25, 2014, 21:45 GMT

    I'm not an England supporter so haven't been following this saga very closely. But my impression of Pietersen is that a "prickly" environment probably would've brought out his best. I'm not so sure it would've been helpful to the rest of the team though.

    I guess that's what it came down to.

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