Amid all the romance, magic, and elation of the Olympics, even the most fervent England cricket supporters have almost forgotten that in three days’ time our side play their most important match since January 2011.
This has hardly been a vintage summer for English cricket. When it’s not been raining, or London 2012 has dominated our emotions, our test XI has performed in a dislocated and fitful fashion. It hardly helps that our most influential batsman, and perhaps our best one, will now be taking no part in the crucial fixture at Lord’s.
How did it come to this? To my mind, it boils down to this. England followers care most about the side winning test series. The ECB care most about showing who’s boss.
I’m not suggesting that Kevin Pietersen is blameless, by any stretch. He has behaved like a total pain in the arse – selfish, foolish, clumsy, and with a dreadful sense of timing. Couldn’t he have waited till the series was over to make such a fuss?
But are those grounds for dropping him from the team, especially ahead of such an important match? KP has done nothing wrong in cricketing terms – he hasn’t missed nets, or turned up drunk. Nor has he punched anyone, or slept with a team-mate’s wife.
The crime Pietersen has actually committed is, unfortunately, the greatest one in the eyes of the ECB: subordination. If there’s one thing the English top brass simply cannot abide – all through their history – it’s a player challenging their authority. They give no quarter: push them too far, and your career is over.
I’ve never really understood why this is so important to them. You’d have thought that those who run English cricket would be almost solely concerned with the team’s effectiveness on the field. But no.
The inviolate, sacrosanct and unquestioned supremacy of their power – and maintaining that status quo – is what really makes them happy. If the players are keeping nicely in line, then all is right in their world, even if that means compromising the strength of the test side.
I know what you’re going to say. KP has gone too far this time, and if team management just cave in, and he’s rewarded for his petulance, he’ll become uncontrollable, and even more of a nightmare in the future
You could also argue that Andrew Strauss himself must have backed the decision to drop Pietersen, and Flower too, and they believe this to be in the team’s best interests. KP’s behaviour was damaging the dressing room’s peace of mind so severely that performance levels were affected, and ultimately, the thinking goes, they’d be better off without him.
I doubt that, come next Tuesday, we’ll still think we were better off with Bairstow than Pietersen. But the bigger problem with this argument is that the deeds and events in this saga are so ridiculously petty.
To sum up, KP became upset that several of his team-mates were following a spoof Twitter account which satirised him – and his attitude probably wasn’t that unreasonable.
And then he was accused of sending derogatory text messages about Strauss to several South African players. Pietersen has not been able to prove he didn’t send them, but what’s odd is that Flower seems to have become obsessed with these texts, and asked the Saffers to hand over their phones so he could inspect them. As if they should. What right had Flower to ask them?
A few texts and Tweets – no one died. This is a row which would seem puerile and trivial in a primary school playground, never mind international sport.
Were KP’s antics really likely to harm the team’s effectiveness? The England players are grown men, and well-paid professionals, not a bunch of seven year olds. Can’t they still bat and bowl properly, regardless of what KP’s doing on his mobile? Imagine if Ian Bell was out to a poor shot, then walked into the post-match press conference and blamed his dismissal on a text message.
Text-gate is only the most immediate symptom of the wider problem – Pietersen’s contract row. No one comes out of this well, but remember that he is paid to make runs, field, and train, not to be a politician or diplomat. It’s the ECB who are paid for those skills. KP is talent, and the team bosses’ job is to talent-manage: to get the best out of temperamental, volatile and fragile personalities. Sometimes that means laying down the law, but it also involves massaging egos and walking carefully over eggshells.
Players themselves have to take responsibility for their actions, but the ECB have the ultimate responsibility for the England team, and for fielding the most competitive-possible XI for every match. On Thursday, our best player will be at home while two rookies try to eke some runs against Steyn and Morkel, and all because of a few text messages. I’d like to hear Hugh Morris talk his way out of this one.