A turbulent period in English cricket – another turbulent period in English cricket, that is – was given one of its abiding images yesterday. “I would be wrong if I said I wasn’t lying in my bed in the last week or so, thinking about the stuff I’d like to do, how I would like to lead this side forward and the decisions that go with that,” said Alastair Cook.
Tossing and turning, possibly shaking and shivering, Cook has been digesting the tumult that has befallen his side in seven weeks. It was not only the 5-0 defeat to Australia in the Ashes series, though that was as grim as it can become for an England cricketer, and Cook has now gone through it twice, once as a junior opening batsman seven years ago, now as captain.
But the immediate aftermath of the final, most depressing, loss in Sydney brought with it claims, counterclaims and denials of a breakdown in relations between Andy Flower, the side’s coach whose official title is team director, and Kevin Pietersen, the former captain and undoubted star turn. It has dominated, occasionally overwhelmed, the agenda, and the start of the one-day series, in which Pietersen is not playing, was virtually forgotten.
In the days since the tourists folded so wretchedly in 31.4 overs to lose the Fifth Test by an innings and 281 runs, a failure in which Pietersen played a full part, everything and nothing has happened. It will come to be seen as the latest episode of a saga which has at various times haunted and glorified the English game for 10 years. It may yet be the penultimate part.
Flower should have suspected something was afoot when he was specifically asked about Pietersen’s future in his briefing to the press the day after the series ended. He played a dead bat to inquiries, as he did to almost every question in one of his least forthcoming interview sessions.
The trouble with saying almost nothing to the press is that they then make their own inquiries, often discreetly, almost always off the record. It is a sporting version of the lobby system in politics, and it can be quite as pernicious.
There was general talk of the end of an era, though Flower, Cook and everybody else have declined to deal in specifics. Since Pietersen has been a running story for 10 years, the gift that keeps on giving, his was the name in the frame.
It seems to be agreed that Piet-ersen was a pain in the rear towards the end of the Ashes. He had not been in good form, and although he played with abundant common sense at times, there were plenty of the peccadilloes which have marked his entire career.
Although England’s leading run- scorer in the series, he has not been able to allay the feeling that he is a player going down the other side of the mountain (though he is not alone in that). When the series was surrendered, Pietersen’s passion for it was reduced accordingly.
The suggestion is he was not being a good team man, and this would have irked Flower. It may be remembered that when Pietersen was reintegrated into the side after his monumental disagreement in the summer of 2012 he apologised to his team-mates and looked forward to “recommencing my career until at least 2015 as long as my body allows”.
In the past few weeks some of the old Pietersen appears to have surfaced, perhaps brought on by the horror of the defeat, perhaps by a sense that as a senior player he was not sufficiently part of the decision- making process. By contrast, however, he felt more comfortable in the dressing room because of the retirement of his old enemy, Graeme Swann. The fact is that Swann had a common touch that Pietersen could never emulate.
Flower’s failure to give Pietersen his unequivocal backing for the future naturally raised questions. Pietersen, too, was initially miffed, but it was explained to him that if Flower had deliberately backed Pietersen, he would have had to do the same for other senior players whose futures are on the line, such as Ian Bell and Jimmy Anderson, and who might have been themselves upset had they not been mentioned. Pietersen was mollified by this.
It is probably fair to say that Flower and Pietersen are not bosom pals. They were both born in South Africa, are both earning their livings in English cricket, but they are not cut from the same cloth.
After England were knocked out of the World Twenty20 in Colombo in late 2012, Flower was asked if Pietersen was a good man. Pietersen had not played in the tournament because of his disagreement with management, and was days away from starting his period of reintegration. Flower replied: “I think he’s a... I think we all have good and bad in us, all of us.”
The relationship has latterly been built on a mutual, slightly grudging respect of each other’s abilities. This was slow in coming from Pietersen, who had Flower in his sights as part of his intended coup of the coaching staff when he was captain in late 2008. It seems bizarre now to think he was ever captain of England.
If Flower was not particularly well disposed towards Pietersen at the end of the Ashes, he had certainly made no decisions about Pietersen’s future role in the England team. Nor were relations between the pair anywhere near as frosty as they had been in 2012, when the rumpus about Pietersen’s personal demands and his relations with South Africa, England’s opponents, brought a temporary end to his career.
Paul Downton, the new managing director of England cricket, might have had cause to wonder what on earth he has walked into. Flower and Cook are both safe in their roles unless Downton, who has as yet expressed no public opinions, decides revolution is the only way – and he will not.
All involved have revealed just enough to indicate that there will be changes, that not everyone can survive and that rebuilding has to mean what it says. Pietersen, Bell, Anderson all have to be part of that.
It might be handy for Pietersen if he were to tell his pal, Piers Morgan, to shut up. Morgan may think he is helping poor old Kev’s defence by tweeting as assiduously as he does. He is not. But that does not seem to have occurred to either of them.
At the end of that briefing in Colombo 15 months ago this reporter said to Flower: “Whatever happens now, it will eventually all end in tears.” Flower did not demur. He probably knew it then, he almost certainly knows it now.
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