James Lawton: Pietersen's fall from grace offers England a shot at Ashes redemption
Saturday 10 January 2009
It seems we were wrong to assume that the Aussies were overjoyed at news that English cricket was again falling apart. Apparently they were rather hoping it might happen a little later in the year, specifically at that traditional time of smack in the middle of an Ashes series.
Of course they knew that the fabled KP was about as temperamentally suited to captaincy as he was a long stint in an enclosed monastery. What rich pickings they might have had even from routine sledging of England's leader in a summer of stress and, as it was made clear before the sacking of coach Peter Moores, a home dressing room that might well have doubled as the set for one of the less cheery episodes of "EastEnders".
Like everybody else, the Aussies could see how good Pietersen was in the English triumph of 2005, but then in the return series in Australia they noted the downside of his competitive nature so clearly they christened him Figjam, or for the purposes of a family paper, Igjam, which means, if you didn't guess, "I'm good – just ask me."
As a batsman in the right frame of mind, Pietersen is no doubt one of the least vulnerable souls on earth. But then the Aussies had him targeted not as a virtuoso batsman but a captain of men. Here they saw some huge fissures, most of which were clear enough to the bulk of the adult population by the time he was gently told this week that not only had he overplayed his hand wildly he had also lost key elements of the dressing room.
Ian Healy – who beneath his baggy green used to keep wicket with brilliant dexterity, growl a stream of witheringly sardonic commentary on the technique and character defects of the captive Englishman, and bat with such steel that flagging bowlers despaired at such a level of middle-order resistance – put the Australian reaction in typically clinical terms this week. He said that while the eruption would probably cost England some pain on the coming tour of the West Indies, they might well be in a lot better shape by the time the Australians arrived in the summer.
Healy's theory was that by then England would be bedded down under new captain Andrew Strauss and would still have a vivid memory of the disastrous effects of a fundamental lack of unity. This, Healy concluded, would mean England would probably have had, under a captain and a coach on reasonable nodding terms, time enough to get a "bit of team culture going". It's a nice, all-encompassing phrase, team culture, even though to English cricket ears it is as unfamiliar as a burst of Polynesian folk singing. Team culture is about finding a way to win – and working with people who you would normally avoid only at pain of the thumbscrew. It is acceptance of different instincts, different character, and a resolve to get the job done under the most difficult circumstances.
Pietersen, to be fair, was honest enough about his inability, and unwillingness, to absorb much if any of this. He wanted the oyster but none of the grit. He wanted his hand-picked people and nobody else, and if he couldn't get what he wanted he didn't really want to know about the challenges and the intricacies of leadership. It was thus a reward the English Cricket Board didn't really deserve, not after their most recent torrent of cack-handedness, when the new captain Andrew Strauss provided a picture call from a Lord's balcony and then scored a public relations triumph that, given all that had gone on before, was quite stunning.
Strauss injected a fair measure of diplomacy into his musings but he didn't lard them with platitudes. He gave unto Pietersen what was his, especially in the matter of his match-winning potential, and also threw in a generous helping of the benefit of the doubt when it came to discussing the former captain's motives. However, Strauss didn't wrap up the essential facts. England's situation was a mess and it would take quite a bit of work to clean it up. The good news was he was willing to take it on, despite the fact that in the eyes of many sound judges he should have been the no-brainer choice to get the job when Michael Vaughan gave it up in such disarray.
As Strauss talked about the pressure on both him and his team-mates to shape some order out of the chaos, you were also bound to be contemptuous of those suggestions that on top of their other faults – which historically nobody could deny – the ECB had reneged on the bold challenge laid down to it by Pietersen. They had received not a challenge but a shopping list, a set of demands which had to be ticked off before the captain would carry on with his job.
There was also the implication that Pietersen's role had been handed, relatively speaking, to some cricketing pygmy. The opposite was true. Strauss may not have Pietersen's potential for the pyrotechnics, but he is a Test cricketer of impressive substance, with 14 centuries, an average comfortably ahead of the benchmark of 40, and a proven ability to fight. Nor is it his fault that he was sent to a top public school and graduated from one of the better universities. Intelligence is intelligence wherever it is shaped, and so is the nous to lead a cricket team whether it comes on a manicured field or some dusty strip in the middle of the bush.
Strauss showed plenty of it in his first attempt to put English cricket back together again. More serious questions will be asked in the Caribbean, of course, and then, ultimately, in the English summer. By then, though, England might just be able to pass for a team. It is as much as we can hope and the Aussies fear.
High time for Ronaldo and Co to get their motors running
So Cristiano Ronaldo isn't Lewis Hamilton. He can be forgiven that, and so many of his foibles, though, if he produces tomorrow something with which just recently he has not exactly been besieging the employers who have provided his heavenly motor pool.
Great players and great teams are supposed to have a relentless appetite for the highest achievement and in this respect Ronaldo and such colleagues as Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov have quite a bit to re-establish against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
They have to remind us that they have not slipped into that category most guaranteed to enrage their patron Sir Alex Ferguson and his erstwhile lieutenant Roy Keane.
It is of course the one that gives off a terrible whiff of complacency; the one occupied by the belief that the big battles have been won and the rest is gravy.
Both United and Chelsea have to show a lot of hunger tomorrow, more than a little of that ferocious ambition and commitment released on the banks of the Moscow River last spring when the Champions League was at stake.
Then a Spanish observer sucked in his breath and declared that such physical power and pace could only be produced by two English clubs. It is a view that pales somewhat against the possibility that Liverpool are maybe on the point of slipping clear at the top of what we like to think is the world's most competitive league.
Anything less than a re-affirmation of that belief at Old Trafford and some will conclude that the living has become just a little too easy. It is time, then, gentlemen, if there ever was one, to start your engines.
Clear decision needed on Tevez
There are still more legal hurdles to clear before we get some definite judgement on the Carlos Tevez Affair but this is work for the lawyers we should not begrudge. Indeed, the news that the case is to be re-opened can only be welcomed by those nagged by the belief that West Ham's puny fine of £5.5m was a bargain price to pay for Premier League survival. Whatever the final conclusion, football will have to accept that in future justice needs to be seen to have been done rather more clearly. The Tevez matter still rankles deeply and all of football is touched by the corrosion.
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