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News Analysis

KP questions deserve answers

The abrupt discarding of England's highest international run-scorer appears to have been the result of catastrophic mismanagement. The ECB owes us all an explanation

George Dobell
George Dobell
It is no coincidence that Kevin Pietersen's international career has run concurrent with England's greatest period of success for at least 50 years.
When England won their first Ashes series in almost two decades, Pietersen's century sealed the triumph. When England won their first global limited-overs trophy, Pietersen was Man of the Tournament. When England went to No. 1 in the Test rankings with a 4-0 defeat over India, Pietersen led the way with a batting average of 106.60. And when England came from behind to win in India, Pietersen played the series-turning innings in Mumbai. He has been at the forefront of almost every success England have enjoyed in the last decade.
Even amid the rubble of the recent thrashing in Australia, Pietersen led the way. On the pitch, he was England's leading run-scorer; off it, he could be seen helping other players in the nets.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad both adopted Pietersen's batting stance having worked with him, while Pietersen was also conspicuous in his encouragement of young players such as Gary Ballance and Ben Stokes. There is no suggestion that he stinted in his fitness or technical preparation. He looked, most of the time, like the model senior professional.
So what has changed? What has changed since Ashley Giles, one of those who supposedly gave his support to the decision to cut Pietersen adrift, rated him a "million-dollar asset" on January 15; since Andy Flower praised his "determination" and labelled him a "great player" on December 10; or since Graeme Swann rated his attitude as "great" on January 27. Indeed, as recently as Christmas Day, Alastair Cook said Pietersen "has a huge part to play in the future" and praised the "excellent" way his squad had "stuck together in the dressing room".
Whispers suggest there were a couple of incidents, including a heated row with Cook in Sydney, in the last days of the tour. But, if Pietersen was so disruptive, why was he not disciplined at the time? If Cook and Pietersen had such a fierce row are they not both responsible and is Cook really the man to make a dispassionate decision? If, in a team meeting, Pietersen was asked for his views at the end of a chastening series, can he be penalised for stating them? And why is the ECB unable to tell us the reason for this drastic course of action?
The manner of the announcement - with Pietersen appearing to go quietly - suggests a deal has been done. But it is not just Pietersen who must be placated here.
England supporters deserve answers. It is unacceptably arrogant to dismiss their legitimate interest with an evasive media statement. It is unacceptable to discard England's highest international run-scorer without explaining exactly why the management believe the team will be stronger without him. It is absurd to claim that, with two global events in the next 12 months and one within weeks, that this is the time to start a long-term rebuilding operation. And it is disingenuous to claim, via off-the-record briefings, that all the senior players were canvassed and gave negative views on Pietersen. Several, at least, claim to be as confused by this episode as Pietersen seems to be. The ECB has to be more transparent and accountable.
The finality of this announcement will also hinder the next team director. Any credible applicant for that job will want to assemble their own team, appoint their own captain and make their own judgements on players. Yet the ECB has decided, without justifying its decision, to commit to a captain who, despite his many positive qualities, has only once averaged even 28 in five series against Australia, and a team without the man who might well be rated, upon reflection, as England's best batsman in half a century.
England's new management team may feel that this is a strong decision. But truly strong leaders accept alternatives, diversity and imperfection. Strong leaders are flexible and embrace difference. Strong leaders understand that genius very often comes at a cost, but a cost that is worth paying.
By allowing the situation to reach this conclusion and in taking such a drastic decision, this is a catastrophic failure of management. England are not embracing change, they are embracing mediocrity
If you can't manage, you shouldn't be in management. By allowing the situation to reach this conclusion and in taking such a drastic decision, this is a catastrophic failure of management. England are not embracing change, they are embracing mediocrity.
It is also a mistake to think this matter is closed. Until the ECB explains exactly how this happened, the questions will remain. Furthermore, England now face the potential prospect of finding new players to bat at No. 2 No. 3 and No. 4 in their Test team and will know that, every time they fail or Pietersen flourishes in whichever domestic league he finds himself at that time, the same questions will be asked: why not pick him? Cook has taken on a burden that will become wearisome very soon.
Pietersen is not perfect. He can seem brash, he can seem arrogant, he can seem self-interested and the manner of his dismissals can be infuriating. But if you accept a player who can hit good bowlers out of the attack - it was his assault against a ferociously quick Shaun Tait that won England the final of the World Twenty20 in 2010, to name one of dozens of examples - then you accept that he will, at times, fall to catches at long-on or long leg. If you ask your players to play fearless cricket but then hammer them for failing, you will create the culture of fear and inhibition that choked England throughout their tour of Australia.
There are parallels here with the end of David Gower's international career. Just as England's last genius batsman was pushed into early retirement by the Gradgrinds of the world, so Pietersen is being pushed away by those who should feel gratitude for his contribution. Had county cricket not lured Pietersen to the UK, the careers of Giles Clarke, Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and Cook would all be much altered.
England cricket is the poorer for the absence of players such as Gower and Pietersen. It will be less colourful, less entertaining and less competitive. But in England the greater sin is to be seen to give your wicket away with a loose stroke rather than leaving a straight delivery and allowing it to hit your stumps. Failure is accepted so long as it is not accompanied by flair. Genius is doubted and distrusted and, in England, you are forgiven for turning your back and going on a rebel tour - Gooch, Gatting, Graveney et al - but not for rocking the boat. In England, success has been a brief interlude in a general drama of failure.
This England environment, in recent times, has a record of ruining players. A confused Steven Finn has regressed, an over-used Swann has retired, an exhausted Jonathan Trott has taken time out and the loss of form of the likes of Cook and Joe Root suggests that the schedule is part of an unsustainable business plan that risks ruining the greatest assets of all: the players.
It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that it is the institution at fault, not the individuals. Change may well be required, but it is right at the top that it should start.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo