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News Analysis

ECB acts to bolster Cook captaincy

Banishment of Kevin Pietersen is intended to strengthen Cook's captaincy but by intervening so strongly on his behalf the ECB risks undermining his reputation

David Hopps
David Hopps
The ECB has reasserted its overriding priority to bolster Alastair Cook's captaincy in a long-awaited and, it has pleaded, legally hamstrung response to the persistent and vociferous opposition to the decision to call a halt to Kevin Pietersen's international career.
During a prolonged and increasingly damaging stand-off, the ECB, however much it remains adamant that it is protecting the ethics of the game, has rarely seemed more at odds with the rank-and-file supporters.
In what seems to be a forlorn attempt to swing the argument in its favour, a statement issued by the governing body implied - without feeling legally able to provide proof - that Pietersen's conduct had undermined Cook's authority during the 5-0 series whitewash in Australia.
"The ECB recognises the significant contribution Kevin has made to England teams over the last decade," the statement read. "He has played some of the finest innings ever produced by an England batsman.
"However, the England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia. To do that we must invest in our captain Alastair Cook and we must support him in creating a culture in which we can be confident he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other. It is for those reasons that we have decided to move on without Kevin Pietersen."
The statement refers obliquely to allegations which have seeped into the open: Pietersen's challenging of Cook's practice regime ahead of the final Test in Sydney - Pietersen wanted England to practise skills rather than work on their fitness - and his general tendency to gather impressionable young professionals to his knee and share his opinions candidly.
As Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain posed on ESPNcricinfo: "Is that outspoken or insubordinate?"
Or, to put it another way: Is it outright rebellion or valid cricketing debate - whether irritating or beneficial - which is aimed at winning cricket matches and which a powerful and strong-willed captain should take in his stride?
That there will be no backtracking by the ECB can be taken for granted. To reverse this decision, however flimsy the evidence in the public forum, would have a devastating effect on those who made it and, as agreement with Pietersen has been reached, the anger felt by England supporters - one unscientific poll on ESPNcricinfo put it as high as 80% in his favour - will eventually dissipate.
What has yet to be judged is the effect on Cook. It remains to be seen whether he gains in authority in the absence of Pietersen and successfully builds a side in his own image or whether the intervention of ECB administrators to prop up his authority will be counterproductive and do untold damage to his unproven reputation as a leader.
Is team spirit essentially a messy, unpredictable business, which rises and falls with results and which can be promoted as an aspiration within a team environment but never managed from afar, or can it be demanded from above by a management-imposed code of practice without stifling individuality?
Increasingly, the suggestion that Pietersen has been banished from the England side to strengthen Cook's position represents an enormous gamble from the ECB and its new managing director, Paul Downton, a so-far silent figure, as far as the public is concerned, who oversaw what has proved to be a highly unpopular decision.
What remains unclear is the extent to which Cook had any part in the decision to remove Pietersen or whether he felt obliged to keep his head down and let events take their course.
The ECB statement was 353 words long, issued several hours later than anticipated and, however much it tried not to be, appeared a legally-fraught exercise in self-justification.
Intriguingly, it was issued jointly with the PCA, which strongly suggests that the two England players who have been targeted by Pietersen's allies - Cook and his vice-captain Matt Prior - were unhappy about such criticism.
No proof of behaviour overwhelmingly worthy of sacking was given. With Pietersen, it has always been that way. The catch-all justification, as most recently asserted by Andrew Strauss, a former England captain who among others has experienced Pietersen's maverick, egotistical tendencies, is that there is no "smoking gun", just a succession of small examples - in essence, a mode of behaviour - which during times of defeat makes his manner difficult to bear.
At a time when Andy Flower, England's former team director, is just one leading cricket figure disturbed by what is perceived as a shifting balance against the overriding importance of the team ethic, Pietersen - whether unfairly or not - has been branded as an example of destructive individualism. Or it could be that those in authority just don't like him.
Most, if not all, supporters are responding: "Well, deal with it then, we want his runs and we want to be entertained."
The outpouring of anger on social networking sites has been less "uninformed" than a demand to be informed. Social media has challenged the reasoning behind the decision. The ECB has to accept this
The ECB is deeply unhappy with this aggravation. "It has been a matter of great frustration that until now the England and Wales Cricket Board has been unable to respond to the unwarranted and unpleasant criticism of England players and the ECB itself, which has provided an unwelcome backdrop to the recent negotiations to release Kevin Pietersen from his central contract," the statement read.
In what can only be described as a surreal development, the statement also seemed to take umbrage - although he was not mentioned by name - to a social-media campaign in defence of Pietersen waged most aggressively by the former newspaper editor and TV host, Piers Morgan, a personal friend.
It is upon typing those words that this sorry affair seems to lose all touch with reality.
The statement continued: "Allegations have been made, some from people outside cricket, which as well as attacking the rationale of the ECB's decision-making, have questioned, without justification, the integrity of the England team director and some of England's players.
"Clearly what happens in the dressing room or team meetings should remain in that environment and not be distributed to people not connected with the team. This is a core principle of any sports team, and any such action would constitute a breach of trust and team ethics.
"Whilst respecting that principle, it is important to stress that Andy Flower, Alastair Cook and Matt Prior, who have all been singled out for uninformed and unwarranted criticism, retain the total confidence and respect of all the other members of the Ashes party. These are men who care deeply about the fortunes of the England team and its image, and it is ironic that they were the people who led the reintegration of Kevin Pietersen into the England squad in 2012."
Few would question that. But the outpouring of anger on social networking sites has been less "uninformed" than a demand to be informed, which is a very different thing. Equally, it is far from the collected thoughts of Piers Morgan. In many ways social media has fulfilled a traditional function of journalism: challenging the reasoning behind a decision. The ECB has to accept the new deal.
One tweet even recalled the words of John W Gardner, a former US marine and health and education secretary under the 1960s American president Lyndon Johnson, wondering of Cook: "All too often, on the long road up, young leaders become 'servants of what is rather than shapers of what might be'. In the long process of learning how the system works, they are rewarded for playing within the intricate structure of existing rules.
"By the time they reach the top, they are very likely to be trained prisoners of the structure. This is not all bad; every vital system reaffirms itself. But no system can stay vital for long unless some of its leaders remain sufficiently independent to help it to change and grow."
Perhaps when the fuss dies down we are about to find out.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo