Strauss is the man to make a phoenix rise from the ashes
The English team may never have known such bitter infighting but when all the smoke has cleared, the future could be bright
Sunday 11 January 2009
It was no way to become the captain of England. But then there was no other way. As the culmination of one of the most traumatic weeks in the history of the English game, Andrew Strauss was asked to take over from Kevin Pietersen, who had resigned after only three Test matches and nine one-day internationals.
The extraordinary sequence of events also led to the sacking of the coach, Peter Moores, ending a tenancy that lasted 20 fitful months. If Pietersen did not quite go in disgrace, it is unlikely that he will be awarded the freedom of the England and Wales Cricket Board any time soon.
By the time Strauss was paraded in public for the first time on Thursday and responded with an equanimity and perception which had been almost wholly absent in the week before, it had become clear that his appointment and, more emphatically, the departures which preceded it, were inevitable. Many of the revelations over five tortuous days were accompanied by smoke and mirrors, many others were based on that age-old arithmetical formula that the addition of two and two makes five.
But it is safe to infer that Pietersen seemed to want not only power as captain but also an omnipotence that cannot be accommodated in a team game for individuals. Had he conducted his campaign in a different manner he might have had his way. It is perhaps therefore a good thing that the affair terminated when it did.
If Pietersen could not muster enough support to lend viability to his ideas, it was fascinating to hear his successor outline his own agenda. Strauss said: "The crux of the matter is that if a coach and a captain don't see eye to eye it's not going to work, as we have just seen demonstrated. That's going to be important for us.
"I'm a different character from Kevin and I'd back myself to work with most people, but I have quite strong views in how I think the team should be run, and it will be interesting to see the coach's views on that as well. In some ways we have to come up with some sort of compromise." There was more where that came from and the essence of his aspiration was not a galaxy away from how Pietersen wished to run affairs. The difference was in the presentation.
The mess might have been avoided and was certainly avoidable, and it was ultimately brought about by a confluence of circumstances that said something about the personalities of Pietersen and Moores, the manner in which the ECB are run and the news-gathering methods and technique of the modern media.
"Generally the captain has to be a strong figure," said Strauss. "I think he has got to have the room to implement the strategy that he thinks will work for the England team. The coach has to support him in that but also challenge him as well to think about things differently and come up with ideas. That is the only way I see it working for any team long term and if you look at most teams, that is the way it does work."
Not much room for doubt in that assessment: Strauss wants and expects to run the show. Nor, given the manner in which he comported himself, was there much doubt that he is the man for this occasion. If any man is.
Sport has a habit of moving on quickly. It has to, because there is always another game, another innings, another over. The great deeds (and therefore misdeeds) of the past are always for another day. So there is an expectation that the woeful kerfuffle of last week can quickly be put behind England, that Pietersen will rapidly be assimilated in the ranks once more and business will be resumed as usual.
Maybe, maybe not, but the amount of dirty linen that has just been washed in public would have stretched the resources of the biggest laundry in Shanghai. Strauss was eager to play down the differences and the suspicion that Pietersen had not had the support from the dressing room on which he might have been banking. Well he would, wouldn't he?
"I have never seen a situation where there hasn't been respect for the England captain while I've been involved," said Strauss. "Hopefully that will continue. The reality is that if you don't buy into what they do and if you're not supporting them, a team is not functional. So I think players do that as a matter of course.
"The captain is the guy in charge and it's not like it's someone from an outside environment who just comes in and suddenly you're the boss. We know who the people are, we know their characters."
It might have been somebody from outside, fairly unknown, had the selectors taken the option that the dressing room had become an Augean stables in need of immediate cleansing. It must have been fairly tense in there at times – any side would be if they lose a one-day series 5-0 without appearing in any danger of winning, and then throw away a dominant position in a Test, as England did in Chennai last month – and the reason winning teams always appear to get on is because they are winning. It happens surprisingly rarely that teams win because theyget on.
"There is some bridge-building to be done and I'm not going to lie about that," said Strauss. "There is some man-management to be done as well, it's important that I do that and whoever helps me out on the tour does that as well. We must get issues resolved and move forward.
"The key for me is to speak to the players collectively and individually about how the team should be run. I have got some idea how the team feel on these issues and the important thing is they buy into that.
"KP has been very supportive. I have a pretty good relationship with KP and I think he is going to be fine. I think he's going to come back and score a lot of runs for England and be a very important part of the dressing room." That he is. As, too, is Andrew Flintoff who, like Moores, has kept a respectful silence. Some unkind comments have been made about Flintoff's part in Pietersen's downfall, none of them verifiable because they could probably not be verified.
The point at which Pietersen and Moores found themselves unable to work together ever again was probably finally reached in Chennai when India were allowed to chase down an unfeasible 387 runs to win the match. Coming on top of the 5-0 reversal in the one-day series, it is easy to imaginePietersen's annoyance.
He was always mildly distrustful of Moores as a coach, and while he would have been well aware that it was not Moores who bowled short outside Virender Sehwag's off stump or who could not exploit the rough outside Yuvraj Singh's, he would somehow contrive to make it feel that therewas a lack of proper international preparation. Maybe he had a point.
Still, even then the position might have been salvaged. Events then took a public turn. On New Year's Eve, after some diligent work by an eager young reporter willing to make the extra call, the split was out in the open.
The detail seemed awry: Pietersen, it seemed, was seeking showdown talks with Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, because he was angry at Michael Vaughan's omission from the Test squad to tour the West Indies. This was odd, because Clarke would have had no direct involvement in the dispute and was not a selector. Whatever assurances Moores might have given his captain about speaking up on Vaughan's behalf, Pietersen must have known this guaranteed nothing, since there were three other selectors.
The story appeared mid-afternoon on the Daily Telegraph's website. The primary author was miffed about this because it meant that rivals would see it fairly swiftly. He would have preferred, as most reporters would, to have the allegations first published in the following day's paper. But that is the nature of modern information: websites have to be served.
The upshot was immediate. Rival papers indeed picked up the story and quickly claimed it as their own. They were still doing so last week, which was a bit rich. Quite rightly, the young eager beaver is annoyed, but at least his colleagues know the truth.
It was an electric story but it was given extra voltage by the lack of any football on New Year's Day. Cricket had the field to itself. It continued to gain velocity partly because one of the protagonists, Pietersen, was in South Africa on holiday and the other, Moores, retained a dignified silence.
The ECB had to say something, and conceded there was friction between the two. Calls were made, injudicious leaks were all round. There were, it is said, multiple sources for the original story. It was being openly touted that it came from Vaughan, who is being paid a handsome sum to write, or at least to have ghosted, columns for the Telegraph group. The report's author denies categorically that Vaughan was in any way a source.
So, did Pietersen or, as they say, his people, disclose it? Probably not, but they might have been happy to confirm it. There is some, admittedly anecdotal, evidence to suggest that Pietersen was not unhappy that the topic had entered the public domain. Throughout the initial part of the process it is pretty certain that Pietersen must have been secure in his position. True, he was on holiday, but he had justifiably gained immense goodwill as captain for his handling of the team's return to India. He spoke from the heart and with compassion. Moores had been silent then, but that should not have mattered. It was, after all, Pietersen's team.
There were still legs in the story but they were beginning to tie up in knots by last Sunday morning. Pietersen has a column in the News of the World and rightly they will feel entitled to some bang for their (six-figure) buck. He did not give them nearly enough then to merit a first-person piece, but there was sufficient for an article in which he was quoted. Without actually naming Moores, he admitted there were differences which needed sorting out. The story was back on.
The mess has been left to Hugh Morris, the managing director of England cricket, to resolve. He is a very decent chap, polite and uncontroversial. But you do not score 19,785 first-class runs as an opening batsman for Glamorgan and England without having a tough streak. He said nowt. It would be in his nature, at a reasonable guess, to effect a rapprochement between Pietersen and Moores. Perhaps it had gone too far, and it was not helped by the fact that Pietersen was still holed up on holiday. He probably needed one, but these were cataclysmic events.
Pietersen's press was not good even among his supporters. It should be emphasised that he does not deserve a quarter of the things that are said about him. One absurd opinion piece had him down as a party animal. Poppy-cock. Pietersen likes the trappings of fame and the money, but he has worked damned hard to get where he is. He might not suffer fools gladly in his working environment but he is invariably courteous, and this reporter has found him a pleasure to deal with, as are most cricketers. But he did not handle this well. Perhaps he thought his position was untouchable. Moores, meanwhile, was consumed by circumstances. They both had to go.
Strauss stepped in, and if Pietersen's position only two weeks ago seemed unassailable, it is not as strong as that of Strauss now. Many people think Strauss should have been made captain of the Ashes squad two years ago. If he had, English cricket might have turned out much differently. It still might. In the wrong fashion, it could have the right man.
Six steps to glory
1. Andrew Strauss must take a crash course in advanced psychotherapy to ensure that Stephen Harmison is permanently ready, willing and mighty.
2. Australia's selectors have to be convinced that loyalty is what counts and that Matthew Hayden should definitely open their batting.
3. The ECB should launch a global search for a new coach, which should end in Western Australia at Tom Moody's house.
4. Since he will not go away until this is done, the selectors should simply pick Michael Vaughan and be done with it.
5. A replacement should be found rapidly for Marcus Trescothick, whose sweet-sucking to enable reverse swing was matchless.
6. England must beat Australia at Lord's for the first time since 1934. Ho hum.
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