Mike Atherton, from The Times and The Australian, with apologies for a change of title from that used: “Too much at stake for Kevin Pietersen and England’s permanent divorce”
IT is unlikely that the England and Wales Cricket Board keeps records for the longest selection meetings but there is a good chance the one concluded yesterday, with the announcement of the squad for the final Test match, wins the gold medal. Inevitably the man who caused the disruption was Kevin Pietersen and the upshot of three days of discussion is that he has been dropped from the squad for Lord’s in a match that England must win to retain its No 1 status.
This has been a remarkable few days, and Pietersen’s axing will go down in the annals of famous non-selections, such as Ken Barrington, disciplined for slow scoring after hitting a hundred in a Test in 1965. The omission of the best player in the team, who only a week ago played one of the greatest Test innings seen in recent times by an England batsman, demonstrates just how far the relationship and trust between Pietersen and the rest of the England team and the management has broken down.
In a YouTube video, released over the weekend, Pietersen announced that “the mood in the dressing room these last 24 hours has really been sorted out”. Not for the first time, Pietersen’s view of the world was at serious odds with others who inhabit his orbit, as James Anderson’s own carefully worded column in a Sunday newspaper suggested. Anderson’s view was that the selectors had to do what was good for the team, and you didn’t need to read between the lines to know what he meant.
England’s management was minded not to take Pietersen’s words in his YouTube appearance at face value – except for the reversal of his one-day retirement: neither the insistence that there were no problems between him and his teammates, nor his gushing love for the team, nor his hubristic assumption that he would be meeting up with them today. And given his numerous volte-face over the years, who can blame them?
The final straw, at least for the selectors, was the text messages that Pietersen is supposed to have sent to some of the South African team during the Headingley Test. Hugh Morris, the managing director of England Cricket, said that there were a number of outstanding issues to be resolved before Pietersen could return to the fold, and they gave him six extra hours on Sunday to confirm that no derogatory texts had been sent. No confirmation from Pietersen was forthcoming.
Morris said, pointedly: “The success of the England team has been built on unity of purpose and trust,” something that has clearly been lost in the days after Pietersen’s post-match press conference at Headingley Carnegie.
For the first time, Pietersen chose to involve his teammates in his self-pitying whine (“it is difficult being me in this dressing room”), which went down badly with England captain Andrew Strauss. The text messages, purportedly about Strauss and Andy Flower’s leadership style, further eroded that trust.
Managing “difficult” players is a time-consuming but necessary burden imposed on all captains. Some are more forgiving than others, but everyone eventually has their breaking point. An observer this week criticised Strauss and Flower for not being flexible enough, and cited Mike Brearley and Phil Edmonds as an example of captaincy as its most tolerant. But Brearley would be the first to admit his failings with Edmonds, and at some point every player, no matter how great, has to give a little in return.
Strauss and Flower are very reasonable men. They will feel that they have given Pietersen enough leeway, and that Pietersen has done well out of England. With their No 1 ranking on the line, and before the captain’s own landmark 100th Test, they might have expected a little more humility and help in return.
The text messages are a difficult issue to comment upon because nobody has seen them (save those to whom they were sent), there is no proof of their existence and no proof that these messages were derogatory and damaging.
The fear, though, would have been the ability of South Africa to release any potentially damaging information during a Test match. The selectors would have wanted to avoid that possibility.
What now for a man who remains available for all forms of the game after his abrupt U-turn? Much depends on how he reacts to this slap-down. His immediate response was mature, reiterating his desire to play in all forms of the game and wishing England good luck. Much of what Pietersen does is calculating but not always well calculated. This time his response, designed not to alienate himself any farther from his colleagues, was sensible.
Pietersen thought he was bullet-proof; Flower and Strauss have sent a message that no one is. But there is too much at stake for him and for England for this to be a permanent divorce.