English cricket: Divided we fall

How Kevin Pietersen reacts to being back in the ranks will determine England's future. Angus Fraser explores the tensions that can split a dressing room
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The Independent Online

With money currently tight and every sporting body looking for ways to increase revenue the England and Wales Cricket Board could raise itself a small fortune by auctioning tickets for the gathering of the England team at a Heathrow hotel on 20 January. Watching Kevin Pietersen, England's recently resigned captain, meet, greet and interact with likes of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison and the other team-mates who failed to give him the support he thought they should is a must-see event.

Never before will as much attention be paid and so much read into a handshake, smile or frown. Hell, the rest of this sad and damaging saga – a conflict of personalities that resulted in two of English cricket's top men losing their posts – has been played out in front of the world's eyes, so why not the follow-up?

For a captain there can be nothing more distressing than finding out that the colleagues you fight, train, eat, sleep and live with for months on end, and who you thought were on your side, are actually not. Ultimately, it was the embarrassing realisation that he did not have the confidence and respect of the England dressing room that forced Pietersen to resign from his position as captain on Wednesday.

The difficult task of attempting to unite a fragmented dressing room has been placed at the feet of Andrew Strauss, who began it at his press conference yesterday, and it will be how the new captain, Pietersen, the remaining players and back-room staff get on that will determine the type of cricket England play in the coming months. Much will depend on how Pietersen reacts to his fall. Will he sit in the corner waiting for the right moment to undermine those that he believes undermined him, or will he put his hands up and say: "Sorry, lads, I got that wrong. Now can we all move forward together?"

It is to be hoped for the sake of the England cricket team that Pietersen, having learnt his lesson, takes the second option, and there is no reason to believe he will not. Yes, Pietersen has a rather large ego and his career to date has not been littered with tolerant acts, but behind the at times thick skin is a man who needs to feel wanted and loved. It is these characteristics that make him the player he is. There is little Pietersen desires more than standing with his arms in the air acknowledging the applause and adoration of a full-house crowd, and it can only be achieved by scoring a hundred for England.

If Pietersen were to take the other route and the England dressing room were to split in two – those who supported him and those who did not – it would make the jobs of Strauss and England's new coach extremely tough. Such a split is unlikely because everyone within the set-up knows there is too much to lose and that it would cause incredible damage to the team's chances of winning this summer's Ashes.

Despite some suggestions in yesterday's papers, Pietersen is not without friends in the England dressing room. Some have portrayed the split as being between Pietersen and Flintoff, but even that is somewhat misleading. It is not in Flintoff's nature to be vindictive, but the two have never been close (it is hard to recall seeing the two ever share a beer at the bar) and there is no doubt that Pietersen is a bit of a loner. It is nothing new, he has always tended to keep himself to himself, a factor that reduces the possibility of a dissenting group forming around him.

No sporting team runs smoothly on a day-to-day basis. There are always incidents. It is to be expected when 15 or so ambitious, talented and determined individuals get together to play a sport in which they need to be aggressive and competitive to succeed. In most sides there are players who do not get on with each other as well as individuals who cause more problems than the rest put together.

None of this is particularly productive because, ideally, it is better when there is harmony. But it is a fact. It is how the team's captain, management and senior players deal with these stand-offs that count.

In some instances it can be healthy if there is a bit of friction or jealousy among team-mates. The England fast bowlers Andrew Caddick and Darren Gough never got on. Indeed, there were several occasions when colleagues thought Duncan Fletcher, the then England coach, would have to step in to stop Gough punching Caddick. The dislike raised the stakes between the two so they were competing with each other for wickets, not just against the opposition.

Each was a fine bowler for England but both had disappeared by the time the 2005 Ashes came round. It is hard to believe there has been a closer, more united England team than that led by Michael Vaughan and Fletcher. There is bound to have been the odd incident but, amazingly in such a scrutinised series, it was kept in-house.

In the year leading up to that triumph the atmosphere had been the same, with every player entering a team ethos and looking to give to the cause. When Vaughan raised the "little urn" at The Oval it highlighted just what a united team could achieve against the best in the world. Since that day, the focus of many in the team has been outwards, looking to gain from the achievement, rather than inwards. One of Strauss's primary aims should be to create that sort of togetherness with the team he assembles.

Many players may appear sensitive but most are pretty resourceful and strong characters. They become accustomed to criticism, whether it comes from the media or abusive spectators beyond the boundary, and develop a thick skin. Most are tolerant of colleagues' shortcomings and when there is an incident it is more often than not quickly forgotten.

Individuals know that they have to perform to keep their place in the side. Life goes on. The danger is that team spirit disintegrates to such an extent that players start to play solely for themselves, making sure that they do enough to gain selection in the next match.

Sadly, this was the scenario during my career in the 1990s. Fifteen years ago there were no central contracts and the selection policy was of the scattergun variety. Playing for England made a huge financial difference but there was little continuity and it could not be relied upon. Such a structure made it very difficult for the team to feel together and it created a rather selfish breed of cricketer.

I had several major rows with Nasser Hussain, who could be a little volatile. On one occasion in the West Indies, after he had rather selfishly run out Alec Stewart in a practice match in Antigua, I made a comment to Nasser about the incident and a row ensued. It finished with us squaring up to each other and him, with bat in hand, threatening to wrap it around my head.

There was another occasion in Adelaide, Australia, when Nasser took exception to me leaving the ground after bowling 30 overs, at the instruction of the team trainer, to warm down at the hotel pool. Nasser said we should have stayed to support him and watch him bat. Another disagreement erupted and it carried on through the evening. It culminated with me telling him that if he wanted England's bowlers to bowl for him, should he become captain, he should start showing them a little more respect. Nasser did become captain, of course, and he never picked me. Despite these rows and his oversight, we continue to get on extremely well. His views on the Pietersen-Moores affair have been a must-listen or read.

If Strauss wants some advice on how to deal with potentially difficult characters he should go no further than the England and Wales Cricket Board offices. There, on the second floor, he will find Mike Gatting, the former Middlesex captain. Gatting had several difficult characters to manage during his time in charge, with Phil Edmonds, Philip Tufnell and Mark Ramprakash being the most high-profile.

There will have been numerous occasions when Gatting thought about sacking Tufnell, but he tolerated his bad moments because he knew what a fine bowler he was. There were occasions when Gatting's policy was not popular among the rest of the team, who were prepared to give Tufnell a little leniency but not as much as the man in charge.

On one occasion during a Middlesex match on a flat pitch at Uxbridge, Tufnell refused to bowl when asked by Gatting. A heated exchange followed, which resulted in Tufnell bowling. In his first over Tufnell took a dive in his follow-through and faked injury. Gatting and the team just left him there rolling around in apparent agony. Believing there was nothing wrong with him, Gatting prevented the physiotherapist coming on to the field. Eventually a rather embarrassed Tufnell got to his feet and carried on.

Even Mike Brearley, the highly regarded former England captain, had problems with Edmonds, but Gatting's came at the end of Edmonds' time in the game when the left-arm spinner was combining a cricket and business career. During a game against Somerset in Bath, Edmonds kept asking to leave the field, which Gatting accepted until he realised he was going off to make business phone calls. When Gatting finally refused all hell was let loose. Edmonds, fielding at third man, would be arguing with Gatting over at gully. Eventually a ball went to Edmonds but rather than return it to the wicketkeeper he hurled it, as hard as he could, at Gatting some 40 yards away, who had to take evasive action.

John Emburey, Middlesex's vice-captain, was slightly less tolerant than Gatting and on one occasion he lost it with Ramprakash, who had been raging at a Cambridge University graduate who had dismissed him at Fenners. Emburey took Ramprakash to one side during the lunch interval and a disagreement ended with Middlesex's vice-captain grabbing the batsman by the throat and pinning him to a mattress that was lying on the table of the dressing room.

Each of these incidents took place during a period in which Middlesex were regularly winning trophies and were the best side in the country. Gatting was prepared to put up with their shortcomings because he knew the team ultimately benefited from them being in it.

Pietersen's problems with Moores never reached such a situation but, even so, he was not prepared to tolerate, or even attempt to work out the differences he had with the England coach. Strauss must show greater understanding for Pietersen, which he will. Like Vaughan he must tolerate the occasional Pietersen indiscretion because England are a far better side with him in it.

Dressing-room dressing-downs

Our correspondent witnessed plenty of differences of opinion – and was involved in a few himself...

"Tufnell took a dive and faked injury. Gatting just left him there rolling around in apparent agony. Eventually a rather embarrassed Tufnell got to his feet and carried on"

Middlesex and England team-mates Phil Tufnell and Mike Gatting

"It finished with us squaring up and him, with bat in hand, threatening to wrap it around my head"

The Independent's Angus Fraser on a confrontation with Nasser Hussain

"A disagreement ended with Middlesex's vice-captain grabbing the batsman by the throat and pinning him to a mattress"

John Emburey gets his point across to Mark Ramprakash