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.
I think with the text messages it’s not really important whether he did or didn’t say what he’s rumoured to have – one way or another they had moved past it and by everyone’s account, even his biggest detractors, he’s been exemplary ever since. I don’t think many people – even him – would have argued if he’d been sacked at the time but you can’t leave it a year and a half and say ‘Oh, we’ve changed our minds’.
Rather than lacking passion his problem seems to have been the opposite – he hated losing and didn’t tolerate mediocrity. Apparently one of the big bust ups towards the end was when KP became incensed by the coaches’ answer to another batting collapse – a fitness session. KP thought they should work on technique.
I’ve worked in places where the guy who highlights why they’re failing – rather than the one responsible for the failure – is the one who’s driven out. He’s the spectre at the wake.
Strangely, I loved KP the batsman but never had much time for him as a human being. I’ve come to like and sympathize with KP and, sadly, have lost a lot of faith in players and ex-players I had great affection for. A lot of people have let themselves down very badly, and are continuing to do so.
You’ve taken the words right out of my mouth Tristan. I feel exactly the same way. It was the same in the Moores debacle. KP was sacked as captain, even though the ECB’s removal of Moores proved Pietersen was right.
Which brings us on to the imminent appointment of Giles, who has won just 4 of his last 20 games in charge. Gilo reminds me of the over-promoted manager at work who everybody likes (he’s probably a soft touch) but absolutely nobody respects. That’s just the type of guy the ECB loves. Who cares if they’re actually a winner or not.
Nicely put. To be perfectly honest this ‘confidentiality’ thing has absolutely destroyed any credibility the ECB has. If they are not prepared to front up with their reasons then don’t expect blind loyalty.
Prior was asked a question which has two wrong answers. “Yes, I really want to throw mud at one of England’s great players,” and “No, there was absolutely no reason for Pietersen to go.” So I suppose I’m with Graeme Swann on this, it was naive to do the Q&A (which is a shame – does that mean all England players now have to avoid media questions as far as possible?)
Nevertheless, I’m sure Prior could have handled the situation better. As for Pietersen, his tweets are the most convincing arguments in support of the ECB so far – though that doesn’t reflect terribly well on the ECB.
I’ve heard that argument used a few times and I find the logic odd: bloke’s pissed off reaction to being arbitrarily sacked and pilloried post-hoc justifies his arbitrary sacking.
What I mean is that it reinforces the perception of Pietersen that he’s prickly and difficult to work with.
But the prickly comment came from Prior. KP’s response was at least pretty lighthearted.
And again, even if it were true, how would it justify taking such an exceptional position with him? Cricket’s littered with prickly and difficult players who’ve also been very successful. Boycott, Hadlee, Lara, Miandad.
Nasser Hussein was a notoriously difficult, prickly character, yet he played for England for 14 years and captained for 4.
A good article by Ed Smith provides some insight, which I struggled not to agree with. Then again, I still feel like I agree with Maxie’s argument.
Ed Smith’s article is well written. However, he refers to “Pietersen’s indifference” to the team and then goes on to say “in the end, that is the evidence that counts” but he offers no evidence for this claim. To me, this is a serious accusation and I want proof especially given that it seems to be agreed by both factions that KP wanted the team to do more net practice not fitness training. That doesn’t really fit with someone who doesn’t care about the team.
Thanks for all your comments – much appreciated. And thanks for the link, Teece. Yes, a very thought provoking piece and I agree with quite a lot of it (shame, though, that he repeats the untruth about the Strauss texts).
But as you point out, DLP, his explanation for Pietersen’s sacking ultimately comes down to “they didn’t like him”, and he cites no evidence for anything.
The notion that KP took no pride in his cricket or the team is very hard to stand up if you look at his actual cricket. Maybe in the dressing room he gave the impression he didn’t give a monkey’s (and the more this saga unfolds, the more clearly we see what an insular and self-important entity that dressing room is), but out in the middle, 8,000 test runs speak for themselves.
Matthew – your point about Prior’s two wrong answers relates in a way to what I was trying to get across. Because the ECB have told us nothing, the hapless players find themselves in impossible positions. That said, Prior could quite reasonably have answered the question with “don’t know, I’m not in the team at the moment”.
I think I more or less agree with you on Prior, in that he could’ve done better. Not sure about the “Not in the team” reply though. Okay, he’s not in the one day setup, so he’s not touring with them right now, but I don’t think he’s dropped from the Test team for the long term (Bairstow’s not good enough, Buttler probably isn’t there yet). I would say he is in a position, having played a lot with KP, to have an opinion on the effect Pietersen has on the dressing room. I would have liked to see an answer along the lines of “We’ll see how things pan out” or something else appropriately vague. Sad position really, when the best answers give the least information.
Morgsie here. Agreed Maxie. Prior could have said ‘no comment’.
Its interesting that Prior should talk about “the value of playing cricket for England, the honour and the pride you need to show as an England cricketer”
I wonder if he has ever talked about that with Graham Gooch? Here’s a quote from Cricinfo: In the 1980s Gooch was often where the action wasn’t: he was banned for three years for leading the first rebel tour to South Africa, a decision he never adequately explained, perhaps even to himself. Even when unbanned, he was often refusing to tour and threatening to come home.
KP may have talked about wanting to play more IPL games but as far as I can tell his priority was always playing test cricket for England and as a result he has scored more runs for England than any other player. Will he be forgiven like Gooch? Or Gatting? Will he be given a coaching job where apparently results don’t matter? Not bloody likely.
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