The Ashes 2015 May 13, 2015

KP distractions at odds with Australia example

Not so long ago, Australia had their own internal issues to deal with. The way they handled things is a lesson for England

Imagine for a moment the following scenario. After the Argus review in late 2011, Cricket Australia's new team performance manager Pat Howard speaks publicly about the need for Michael Clarke's side to start afresh.

Howard has been chosen in the role first so he can have input into the appointments of the new head coach and the selection panel. But before he can appoint them, Howard announces that he has spoken to Shane Watson, and that due to "massive trust issues" between him and the captain Clarke, the allrounder is not to be considered for selection.

Now imagine Howard then trying to go on to choose the national team's new coach and selectors, in concert with the CA chief executive James Sutherland. Thanks to the assiduous work of an external recruiter, they have a long list of candidates, both local and overseas. Oddly, though, that list starts to shrink before their very eyes as emails and letters come in withdrawing interest in the roles. In all of this correspondence is a running theme: "Since Pat has already done our job for us, we don't see the need to apply."

All the while Watson is mounting a concerted campaign to regain his place, pointing to a record that in 2011 was rather more sturdy than it is now, and helped by powerful allies such as the former captain Ricky Ponting and the influential radio host Alan Jones. Unnerved by the mounting hysteria and the now decidedly thin field of contenders for coaching and selection roles, Sutherland looks sternly towards Howard for a solution. Is there one?

Had such a scenario unfolded in Australia in 2011, or even in 2013 following the unbearably fraught Test tour of India, the outrage would have been enormous. As it was, Howard found himself in hot enough water for expressing the view that Watson acts in the best interests of the team "sometimes", prompting a flurry of criticism from the likes of Ponting and Jones, who once spat out the demagogue's line "the only people in cricket who don't hate Howard are those who haven't met him".

Shane Watson and Kevin Pietersen are unlikely to come up against each other this summer © Getty Images

It has been met with some amazement in Australia, then, that Andrew Strauss has become the second England team director to follow exactly that line of action in regard to Kevin Pietersen. Essentially barred from selection by Strauss, Pietersen is thus unavailable to whoever replaces Peter Moores as coach. Australian opinion of Pietersen's batting remains uniformly high, and it was no coincidence that even during the latter stages of the 5-0 sweep in 2013-14 it was his wicket that elicited the most joy.

Even now, members of Australia's touring squad soon to depart for England via the West Indies cannot quite believe the idea that Pietersen has been ruled out once more. Last month, Clarke had this to say: "I do think he could be at the Ashes. His form, he's showed that he's certainly scoring enough runs. He's made it very clear he wants to play and now it will come down to the England selectors."

That it hasn't come down to the selectors will miff plenty of Australian players. When queried on the topic this week, Ryan Harris refused to believe it. Over in England, Peter Siddle said that for all his personal success against Pietersen - 10 dismissals - there would be plenty of relief at not seeing him walk out to bat. "A bloke that averages 50 in Test cricket, I'm happy to have him out of the side and get someone else in who averages less," Siddle told the Manchester Evening News. "I'm quite happy to have him out of the side."

At a higher level, Australia's mentors and planners will be delighted to be facing opponents who remain distracted by the sorts of issues they themselves have had to contend with in recent years. Much as England took advantage of Australian issues of personnel and personality in 2009, 2010-11 and 2013, now it appears to be Australia's turn to be in the ascendant, not only in terms of on-field results but also off-field cohesion.

This is not to say that Australia's cricketers are not without their own sources of tension and disagreement. Dramas surrounding the fitness of Clarke and his differences of opinion with various figures around the team, namely the selectors and the coach Darren Lehmann, came close to bubbling over into major rows more than once during the home summer. Clarke's dignified exit from the ODI team after piloting his side most of the way to victory in the World Cup final was the best possible conclusion to the season, but it could so easily have been an uglier finish.

Then there is the fact that in retaining older players such as Clarke, Watson, Harris, Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson, Australia have an awful lot of cricketers about to go on a long Ashes tour while pondering whether it will be their last. There has been talk of legacies and crowning achievements, exactly the sort of rhetoric that Pietersen bitterly recalled in the lead-up to the tour Down Under two years ago. Should England make a decent start, the resolve of sportsmen glimpsing the finish line will be tested.

Nevertheless, it is patently clear that for now Australia will be the team more likely to be choosing their 11 best players to take the field in Cardiff, having more effectively managed the sorts of fractures that occur in all manner of sporting collectives. They will also have a well-established sense of role clarity for every member of the team and those who manage it from above. Selectors handle selection, management handle staff, players handle the cricket.

That is why it was so bracing to imagine the Pietersen scenario unfolding among the men in the baggy green caps: there was a period when it might easily have done, and it is a credit to Australian cricket that it has not.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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