Thursday, 23 August 2012

Give Pietersen Another Chance

At the beginning of the nineteen-nineties, the ECB decided (in its vast and infinite wisdom) to steer the good ship England away from a team of talented individuals, free to express their cricketing abilities with the support and backing of an enthusiastic coaching and management staff. Instead, they would drop players such as Botham, Gower and Lamb, pick steady plodders who would never question their methods and give leadership positions to the likes of Dexter, Illingworth and Stewart.

How the world laughed and how we cried. As teams such as Australia, Pakistan, South Africa and India grew stronger and blossomed, England spiralled into terminal decline, fuelled by the "in my day" approach of the grey coaches and selectors and the ever-changing and yet ever-failing rostrum of players.

Occasionally, in the midst of oceans of mediocrity, there would be a diamond such as a Ramprakash or Cork. However, no sooner had they suffered their first failure, they were criticised or dropped. Or both. Even the good players, such as Smith and Atherton were not allowed to flourish as they might otherwise have done in another team.

How quickly we forget the familiar sight of empty stadiums, of 600+ totals by the opposition, of series defeats, of players we'd never heard of being called up once and of the teletext failing to catch up with the latest England batting collapse.

It was through all of this that I started to grow apart from cricket. That isn't to say I wasn't interested anymore, but I just couldn't quite find the passion to continue playing. Indeed, most English sport during the late '90's was languishing in a fairly lamentable state, with the football team led by Keegan, the Olympians having failed in Atlanta and the rugby team still being rebuilt. Not a time of great motivation for people keen on participating in their chosen sport.

Somehow or other, things managed to change. Perhaps it was Fletcher, perhaps Hussein, or maybe Vaughan. Probably a combination of all three. But following the Ashes defeat in 2003 things changed and suddenly England got good again. They won matches, they won series, they became competitive and they started to impress. It wasn't just because they were a good team, with a good coach and captain, but also because they had good players. Trescothick, Flintoff, Jones and Harmison were all game changers and could destroy teams. Heads were turned and kids wanted to play cricket again. I started to play cricket again. But it was in 2005 that the sea-change was complete...

Following the test series win in South Africa, a young South African batsman who had moved to England to escape the politically-fuelled quota system walked out to a cacophony of abuse in a losing one-day international cause. Ignoring the horrific abuse of the crowd and the opposition, he produced three stunning hundreds, almost single-handedly stealing victory from certain defeat. It didn't stop there. Back home, he dismantled the Australian bowling attack firstly in the one dayers, then in the first Test at Lords, before a maiden century in the final Test to clinch the series. That 158 was one of the finest innings I have ever seen in any form or context of cricket. Immediately, thousands of kids had a new hero - a reason to come through the gates, pick up a bat or join a club.

Since his debut, Kevin Pietersen has scored over 7,000 runs at an average of nearly 50 with 21 hundreds. Moreover, his One-Day performances mean he has more international hundreds than any English batsman in history. He has transformed the batting lineup, winning games, emptying bars, and destroying opposition attacks. He has been, without a doubt, the finest English batsman since Hammond.

And yet, despite this huge contribution, what has he received back from the establishment? Constant criticism from the media. Nationalistic snipes from older "fans" and MCB members. Zero backing as captain. A disgraceful removal as captain by the ECB. A stubborn refusal by the ECB to negotiate over IPL participation. Snipes by former players over his "ego", despite his commitment and work ethic in training. Ridicule by jealous rivals and supposed fans. From the start of his international career to the present, he has had to suffer constantly and monstrously for his art, for no other reason than the lack of comfort with which his confidence and style sits with some armchair pundits in the UK raised on a diet of self-effacing under-achievers. First on the training pitch, last to leave, first to celebrate the achievements of his team mates, first to give his opinion on the teams’ performance, honest with his views and forthright in his passion for England. Why on earth would any Englishman hold a grudge against such as character?

And as I write this, it may all be over. Having contributed so highly for so long, the first time he has allowed his frustrations to get the better of him, the administrators have imposed a draconian punishment upon him, ignoring the provocation that preceded the events. How hypercritical and yet so typical that the people who want the game to flourish and who want the England cricket team to prosper have removed their best chance of doing so.

This situation should never have been allowed to happen. He should have been given a support structure to cope with the itinerary rather than essentially being punished for his selection in the IPL. He should have been given support within the dressing room. He should have been valued by his employers, rather than chastised like a child by the bigots who still run our game. If he texted according to the recent speculation then that was a mistake. However it was a mistake born from a long succession of events that combined to alienate and punish him rather than value and reward. I hope it can be resolved, I hope they can come to an agreement and I hope he can continue to be an aspiration and inspirational figure for the future generation of English batsmen.

Pietersen's involvement in the England cricket team marked the start of a long journey to being the number one team in the world and the week they dropped him saw us lose that spot. I hope to god they see sense and take him back but if they stay true to form then I shall say with great sadness "thanks for the memories."