Kevin Pietersen continues to shine in club T20 – such as here for the Melbourne Stars © Cricket Australia/Getty Images
Soon, I promise, we won’t need to talk about him anymore.
Kevin Pietersen is 35 years old and turning grey around the temples. He has already turned his back on the 2016 English summer, he’s canned his annual jaunt to the Caribbean Premier League in order to spend more time with his family, and to no-one’s surprise whatsoever – least of all his own – he’s been omitted from England’s 15-man party for the World T20 in India next month.
As far as the England management are concerned, today’s squad announcement heaps closure upon closure. Two years have elapsed already since Pietersen’s sacking by the ECB in the wake of the 2013-14 Ashes. Moreover, it is nine months – the most pregnant of pauses – since Andrew Strauss, the ECB’s director of England cricket, announced at Lord’s on this first day in the job that Pietersen was not part of the team’s plans “in the short term”.
It was always going to be safer for the ECB to leave their intentions vague where KP was concerned. The competitive fires of one of the most exceptional, divisive, and talked-about cricketers of his generation are bound to be extinguished before long. It is fair to suppose that, within a couple of seasons, his career will have faded to a montage of preposterous strokeplay, much like Brian Lara’s before him – his genius preserved in aspic, irrespective of those unshakeable gripes about his personality.
Going, however, does not yet mean gone, and for the time being, an inconvenient truth lingers over the remnants of his career. Despite his age and despite his baggage, Pietersen remains good enough not only to have walked into England’s first-choice XI for the World T20, but to have resumed his former role as the kingpin of the batting order – to a degree that even he might admit he would struggle to replicate on a consistent basis in Test cricket.
On the face of it, England are doing just fine without him. Their one-day form has been a revelation since their debacle in last year’s World Cup (notwithstanding Tuesday night’s reality check in Centurion) and there is plenty of reason to keep faith with their eyes-to-the-future approach in both Tests and, especially, 50-over cricket. After all, each of the next two global ODI tournaments, the 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup, are taking place on home soil. England, on current evidence, are firmly on track to mount genuine challenges for both.
But in Twenty20 cricket, a different dynamic rules the roost, and it is one that England, despite their best and most progressive intentions in recent months, have not yet got their heads around.
On the one hand, they have finally embraced the opportunities presented by overseas franchise leagues, not least Australia’s Big Bash, in which Adil Rashid in particular made extraordinary strides for Adelaide Strikers this winter.
But on the other hand, they cannot bring themselves to forgive or forget the power struggles that preceded this change of attitude. Pietersen – like his fellow persona non grata Luke Wright, whose thrilling match-winning century in front of 80,883 people at the MCG on January 2 was not sufficiently persuasive to earn a call-up – started pursuing his opportunities before the floodgates were officially opened. The attitude towards both men is appropriately antediluvian.
Pietersen’s single biggest beef with the ECB – over and above his animosity towards Andy Flower or his petty feuds within the dressing-room – was the board’s inability to create a window in the international schedule to allow him to remain an England Test cricketer and pursue the opportunities (educational, believe it or not, as well as financial) that the Indian Premier League offered him.
Now, however, that old script has been torn up and England have allowed Jos Buttler, their most stunning one-day asset for many a year, to skip the entirety of England’s spring campaign and earn his market value with Mumbai Indians instead. It helps, of course, that he was never going to wrest his Test place back from Jonny Bairstow in that timeframe, but Pietersen would be entitled to argue that he beat a path through the ECB’s intransigence that would never otherwise have existed.
As long ago as June 2012, a few weeks before the Textgate scandal that shattered his relationship with Strauss, Pietersen explained to me the importance of learning from the best, and recounted how, on the eve of that month’s Test series against West Indies, he had been able to ring up his Delhi Daredevils team-mate, Mahela Jayawardene, and ask him for the low-down on facing the West Indies spinner, Sunil Narine.
“I asked, ‘MJ, what’s the go on Narine?’, and he gave me a half-hour chat on what he does and how he does it,” Pietersen said. “We discussed options on how he played him and how I play. And I wasn’t surprised when I faced him.”
Jayawardene, it hardly needs pointing out, will be on hand for the first ten days of the World T20 as England’s batting consultant. But Pietersen, a man whose performances at the sharp end of last month’s Big Bash were as jaw-droppingly dominant as anything he produced in his Man-of-the-Tournament exploits at the 2010 World T20, is in the form and frame of mind to have imparted such nuggets of wisdom by deed as well as word.
There is a self-immolating perversity to the ECB’s non-selection of Pietersen for their World T20 campaigns – it was exactly the same in Bangladesh in 2014, albeit at the absolute height of the feud, when their tournament fizzled out with defeat to the Netherlands. Of course it’s his own fault as much as the Board’s – his precious, preening ego-mania must have been exhausting to have endured in those days when it was “hard being him” in the dressing room.
And yet, other nations are able to take a far more pragmatic approach to selection for the big events – not least West Indies, who may be on the brink of another strike after the WICB’s refusal to negotiate terms with their players. But at least all the big names were called out of the woodwork in the first place.
Where it all ended: Sydney 2014 © Getty Images
The likes of Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard and Dwayne Bravo, strangers to the West Indies set-up for so many years, muscled their strife-driven team to glory in the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka and were, until last month, ranked the No. 1 international side in the format. The local knowledge gleaned from so many seasons in the IPL has been too valuable for the selectors to ignore on a point of principle.
Those points of principle may be as long as the ECB’s legal bill where Pietersen is concerned, but one aspect that cannot be factored in any longer, at least on a dressing-room level, is the “massive trust issue” of which Strauss spoke at Lord’s last year. None of the players with whom Pietersen fell out so publicly – Matt Prior, James Anderson and Graeme Swann in particular – are involved any more. Nor is Stuart Broad, who seemed to be lurking for a recall with his return to the white-ball squad in South Africa, but has been overlooked as well.
In fact, aside from Eoin Morgan, whose public slamming of the door in the Daily Mail last week was at odds with his previously conciliatory attitude, most of the players who will travel to India next month were barely 15 years old when Pietersen scorched his way to immortality with his 158 against Australia at The Oval in 2005.
Anyone who has eavesdropped on the player mics during Pietersen’s franchise stints will have heard a player who is immersed in the big moments of every match, and whose avuncular approach to his younger team-mates is at odds with the aloof persona that has been portrayed in the past. He has settled into the autumn of his career with a degree of serenity that he so manifestly lacked in his brash early years.
To be fair to England’s selectors, their team’s prospects for the World T20 are exponentially improved on the squad that crashed and burned at the World Cup this time last year. Morgan, hospital-passed the ODI captaincy at the last minute when Alastair Cook’s shortcomings became too acute to ignore, has bedded into his role with aplomb and has around him a fast-tempo team of young thrusters who should be a decent bet for a place in the last four.
But, as Jason Roy, one of England’s young guns (and an unashamed KP fanboy from his days in the Surrey dressing-room), told ESPNcricinfo last month, there’s bound to be a degree of guesswork when it comes to tackling a global tournament in an environment as intimidating and unfamiliar as India: a country where – aside from Morgan, Joe Root and, blink and you miss it, Buttler – none of England’s batsmen have ever before played at the highest level.
“I don’t know how we prepare for World T20 to be honest,” Roy said. “We’ll go out to South Africa and speak to the coaches and the players who’ve toured there a bit, and see what they know. It’s not the sort of place where you can just have a few nets sessions and go out and have a slog.”
Indeed. One bad day at the office – and they tend to happen in the subcontinent – and yet another England team is liable to slide out of yet another global tournament with their potential unfulfilled and the promise of better things to come.
Sometimes, the here-and-now is all that really matters in sporting contests. England know that better than most sides, after the last-minute dose of pragmatism with which the World Twenty20 crown was seized in the Caribbean in 2010.
For that tournament, England memorably jettisoned their plans on a whim, after watching the England Lions’ openers, Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb, batter the living daylights out of their first XI in a low-key T20 warm-up in Abu Dhabi, three months before the main event got underway.
Out went their original pairing of Jonathan Trott and Joe Denly, in came a dose of unexpurgated strokeplay at the top of the order, and England galloped to glory in the final against Australia in Barbados.
Underpinning all that vim and vigour, however, was a thrum of indisputable class at No. 3, a specialist position like few others in the modern game – demanding as it does a near-instant assessment of the conditions at the top or tail of the innings. Pietersen’s Man-of-the-Tournament award was earned for 248 runs from 180 balls all told. And he even missed one match for the birth of his son.
Compromise has had its benefits for English cricket in the past. Suffice to say, the post-mortem will be loud and retrogressive if England don’t perform to their absolute limit next month. But, after all the scorched earth that has been created in the past couple of years, a tempering of ambitions for the here-and-now may be a price that the ECB is willing to play if it guarantees a clean slate for 2017 and beyond.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo