How the Australians and South Africans must be laughing at us. While those two nations – our deadliest rivals – contest a test series of the highest quality, we have sunk ever deeper into the mire, as a trio of current and ex-players bicker and bitch and blame each other.
Just to remind you of the main facts: last week Matt Prior was asked, during a question-and-answer session at a cricketing event in Dubai, whether the England dressing room would now be a better place without Kevin Pietersen. Prior replied: “Yes, it will”.
He went on to say: “I think one of the biggest things [the ECB] want to rediscover is the value of playing cricket for England, the honour and the pride you need to show as an England cricketer. And they only want people in that dressing room that are going to be passionate about England winning and performing.”
To which Kevin Pietersen responded on Twitter: “Fewer Q&A’s, more Sussex nets methinks, @MattPrior13!#josbuttler“, with the mention of Buttler almost certainly a reference to the rivals Prior must surpass to regain his England place.
When another Twitter user replied to say “that will be why KP isn’t in the England set-up any more”, Pietersen in turn replied with “neither is The Big Cheese Prior!”, referencing the keeper’s nickname in the England dressing room. And after a second critic wrote: “At least they’re 1st division nets Kev!!” (meaning that Prior’s county, Sussex, are in Division One of the County Championship whereas Pietersen’s Surrey were relegated last season, KP countered with, “they’re county nets!. Not where the ‘Big Cheese’ wants to play his cricket!”
Then Graeme Swann became involved, commenting on Test Match Special that: “I think Matt’s been a bit naive doing a Q&A in Dubai – you’re never safe in these things. But Kevin has come back in a fairly childish way. I’m sure he [Pietersen] has still got his [Prior’s] number and could have rung him.”
When he was then asked to shed more light on Pietersen’s sacking from the England team, and his allegedly atrocious behaviour, Swann – who rather typically in this affair, wasn’t aware of any real facts – said: “I’ve not heard of specific instances that took place on the last three weeks of the tour, when I wasn’t there, but little things are getting back to me. I still don’t know what exactly happened but I’ve been assured by the one or two friends I still have in the team that things did happen. Kevin is a world-class player but he does upset people wherever he goes.”
So who’s to blame in all this? As ever, it depends on whose side you’re on in the first place, because in the Pietersen sage virtually no one is able to analyse anything dispassionately. But here are a few salient facts.
Graeme Swann is no longer an England player, and therefore is entitled to say pretty much whatever he likes. He is now a commentator, and although there’s a reasonable argument that he still owes his former team-mates some loyalty, he understands that his responsibilities from this point onwards are to his media employers, and to his broadcast audience. His job is to be interesting, and to provide candid insight.
Just to digress briefly, it’s notable that many of those who have criticised Swann’s intervention have highlighted his decision to abandon the team and retire mid-way through the Ashes series. It’s a terrible shame that his superlative England career will probably be forever tarnished by that decision. Swann was one of the finest and most important England players of the last thirty years, and I think it’s only just sinking in just how much we’ll miss him in the side. His departure will affect us more deeply even than Pietersen’s.
But to return to the topic – like Swann, KP himself is no longer in the side, and is therefore a free agent. Moreover, he was sacked by the England team without explanation. Just how much loyalty is he supposed to show, bearing in mind the intense criticism, and the many false allegations, he has sustained during the last month? What genuine reason does he have not to respond to Prior’s traducing of both his professionalism and the contributions he made to the team for nine years?
The fact that Pietersen was apparently required to sign a confidentiality agreement only underlines how sordid the entire affair has become, and to the extent to which the ECB morally degraded not only their position, but that of every party involved.
Matt Prior, by contrast to Swann and KP, is still an England-contracted player – albeit, significantly, one who is not currently in the team. Unlike the other two, he still speaks on behalf of the official English cricket set-up. He is obliged, therefore, not only to behave with dignity, but to stick to the official party line. Prior should not be slagging off players who’ve been sacked from the team and are technically not allowed to respond.
As it happens, Prior’s central contention is false. There has not yet been an England test dressing room without Pietersen in it, so how would Prior know whether it will be a better place, especially as he’s not even in the team himself. As an aside, it’s also worth noting that the factor most likely to cheer up a dressing room, surely, is winning matches. More to the point, you don’t win test matches solely by means of nice dressing rooms – you also have to score more runs and take more wickets than the opposition, which usually involves having better players than they do.
But the rest of what Prior said was more serious. He dipped his toe into the water of insinuation without backing up his assertions. If Prior genuinely believes that Pietersen did not “value…playing cricket for England”, had no “honour” or “pride” as an England player, and was not “passionate” about the team “winning and performing”, then he must back up these vague criticisms with facts, substance, and examples.
It’s not good enough merely to imply such grave failings: if Prior wanted to slate Pietersen in public, he should have committed to it fully, and explained to supporters exactly why he feels that way. As it is, Prior just sounds bitter and weak, but in a strangely bland and corporate way.
If Prior really expects England supporters to believe that Pietersen had no pride or passion in performing for England, he needs to provide some evidence. In the absence of that, all we have to go on is the evidence of our eyes – and from where I was sitting, KP’s 8,181 test runs and 23 test centuries didn’t particularly bear the hallmark of someone who didn’t give a toss.
It’s not entirely Prior’s fault. By refusing to explain why they sacked KP, and by failing to provide even one specific example of his wrong-doing, the ECB have created a vacuum, which has had the effect of ensuring the situation remains febrile and heated (the complete opposite of what they hope for – which is that we’d all just forget about it and move on).
And that void – that secrecy and silence – maintains a fervent appetite for any scrap of even vaguely-relevant information. Because the ECB won’t tell us what happened, we pounce on anything anyone says, in the usually vain hope of getting somewhere nearer the truth. By refusing to front up themselves, and hiding behind evasive press releases, the ECB are exposing all their players to an intense degree of scrutiny. Eventually, as Prior has done, someone was going to let something slip. The consequence of the ECB’s cowardice, as we are now seeing, is this corrosive atmosphere of gossip and sniping, which is humiliating us in the eyes of world cricket.
However, as I’ve argued before, it could well be that the ECB have never told us the reasons for sacking Pietersen because, quite simply, they don’t have any. If you were to write down a list of the specific things you know KP did wrong, what would you actually put on that list?
How about those text messages, I hear you cry. Well, have you ever seen those texts yourself? Do you know what he said? It’s become a truism – repeated by Graeme Swann during his TMS session – that in those messages Pietersen abused Andrew Strauss and relayed tactical information to the South African dressing room. Pietersen has always denied both these charges; there is no evidence to the contrary; and at the time the ECB accepted this.
Here is their press release from 3rd October 2012:
“Due to the fact that Kevin had not retained the BBM messages, this matter has been successfully concluded through a binding assurance provided to ECB by Kevin. Kevin conceded that the messages exchanged were provocative. ECB is satisfied, following receipt of this binding assurance, that to the best of his recollection, Kevin did not convey any messages which were derogatory about the England Captain, the England Team Director, the ECB or employees of the ECB. Furthermore, there was no tactical information whatsoever provided to members of the South African Touring Party”.
The truth is that even Pietersen’s gravest enemies have nothing on him.