James Lawton: Stuff of the schoolyard plays out its inevitable end
Thursday 08 January 2009
Even though Kevin Pietersen has been digging his own grave as captain of England for some time it is still surprising that he should also provide the perfect requiem for the whole sad and tawdry business.
"I'm in no fit state to discuss resignation," he announced as a tide of speculation began to build yesterday. Later he issued a statement that confirmed the parting and what seemed suspiciously like the sentiments of a victim.
But it was that first tender reaction that lingered most persuasively.
This, after all, was not some shell-shocked tenderfoot at the end of a bad day at the hands of the possibly renascent Aussies in this summer's Ashes series. This was a batsman of the ages revealing the emotional stability of a troubled adolescent. This was the phenomenally gifted 28-year-old who less than six months ago was entrusted with the cricket future of his adopted country.
And what had he done with the responsibility? He had made it seem like the most inappropriate gift ever handed out in the long and bedraggled and now nothing less than pitiful history of English cricket administration.
For most of yesterday there was only one certainty.
It was that Pietersen would not be captain when England set off for the West Indies in two weeks' time and then resume the ancient battle with Australia in Cardiff in July. Behind this reality was a conclusion that could not be avoided. It was that whatever the detail, whether he jumped or was pushed, Pietersen had not only reduced himself to a parody of what an international captain should be. He had also heaped on the team he was supposed first to save and then drive forward his own miserable condition of not being in a fit state. Not in a fit state of preparedness to compete at the highest level of the world game. Not in a fit state to look into the mirror and see anything but a failure to understand how teams in the grown-up world work, how they have to battle with patience and maturity through all kinds of frustration and even enmity before having any kind of chance of reaching the mountain top.
Yesterday Pietersen and the team put under his leadership were not fit, above all, to hang on to even the most rudimentary requirements of a properly competitive force.
We are by now, of course, well enough versed in the factors that brought such a swift and unedifying end to Pietersen's brief tenure. The captain could not, and would not, work with yesterday's other casualty, coach Peter Moores. He wanted his friend and confidant Michael Vaughan in the team, despite the fact that the former captain had resigned the position in a teary, farewell speech – one which has yet to be redeemed by evidence that he has regained his nerve in the most important place of all, the field of play.
Pietersen wanted everything his way and if he didn't get it he didn't want to be captain. He might even take his golden bat away to the rupee-laden Indian Premier League, a possibility that, as no small mercy, he ruled out last night.
This, however, was the not the stuff of crack international sport but the schoolyard and yesterday the foot-stamping reached its only possible conclusion.
For the England and Wales Cricket Board the nightmare was two-fold. First, if it did not want to yield the last vestige of its authority, it had to put the captaincy in the safer hands of Andrew Strauss, a much more rounded personality with some knowledge of life beyond the boundaries, and install the much respected batting coach, and former Zimbabwe Test star, Andy Flower in place of the fallen Moores.
No doubt even now some of Pietersen's fiercest admirers will say that he should have been given his head. They will say that talent of his order overrides all other considerations. So what if he dyes his hair and has a liking for bling and would be as much at home in the Lord's Long Room sipping a pink gin with the retired colonels as, say, some passing heavy metal star? Pietersen is so good at the batting crease, so demonstrably better than any of his team-mates, he should be allowed to write his own terms and his own script.
Unfortunately, we have surely seen enough of Pietersen the captain to know how the story might end if it was allowed to stagger past the embarrassments which have reached a dismaying climax this week.
Better that the denouement at least has the virtue of brevity and has not occurred, as, based on the recent evidence of Pietersen's temperamental unwillingness to accept any direction but his own, it might easily have done in the middle of a trying Test.
A series of former Test captains dating back to Bob Willis has stepped forward, with varying degrees of emphasis, to say that even allowing for the reality of a new age, and new values, the Pietersen way just couldn't work. Most emphatic was Nasser Hussain, who made the point that even as he helped to build an England that emerged so competitively against the Australians in 2005, he had plenty of disagreements with the coach he most admires of all who have worked for England, Moores' predecessor Duncan Fletcher.
Hussain talked of the need to understand that the passage of even the greatest of teams is never going to be easy. You do not wake up one morning and find all the pieces perfectly *place. Indeed, sometimes the pieces rub together about as comfortably as raw wounds. Sir Ian Botham and Geoff Boycott occupied the same dressing room with an almost total absence of mutual sympathy. Yet they produced great cricket in a great team despite occupying separate planets.
A natural captain understands it will be a rare occasion when he is in charge of blithe and accommodating spirits. He understands that he might not always be right, that his vision of the world may just at times be slightly at odds with some deeper reality.
Some say that Mike Brearley was the best, most intuitive captain England ever had even though he was barely adequate with the bat. One of his players, Botham, created a lustre that in the long run Pietersen will do well to match, let alone exceed. But as a captain he was pretty much a disaster. However, he also understood that you couldn't always have your own way. Sometimes you just had to do the best you could in the worst of circumstances.
That wasn't enough to make him a great captain but it does put him in an excellent position to advise Pietersen on the most vital course of the rest of his career. It is to understand not only his own needs and priorities but those of the men around him. Cricket is in this respect trickier than most team games because nowhere is there a greater need to produce consistent evidence of your individual value. You have also to grasp that, however good you are, there will always be days when you need a helping hand – and the powerful sense that you are indeed part of a team.
With such support Kevin Pietersen might just have been better placed to discuss, and perhaps even reflect on, the crisis that was almost entirely his own work.
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