By Nishad Pai Vaidya
It is a storm that threatens to rock English cricket as it struggles to maintain its grip over the No 1 ranking in Test cricket. The defeat against South Africa at The Oval came as a huge blow, but the home team salvaged some respectability with a fighting performance at Headingley – thanks largely to Kevin Pietersen’s innings of 149 - against quality fast bowlers in a difficult situation. Probably one of his best knocks ever. But Pietersen’s shocking press conference quickly changed the mood. International cricket is still coming to terms with Pietersen’s unexpected retirement from limited-overs internationals, and his latest announcement of possible retirement from Test cricket indicates that all is not well in the English camp.
Pietersen’s body language at the press conference didn’t leave any room ambiguity. He looked deeply distressed.
There are a few interesting points as he said that his participation in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and his wish to spend more time with his family were just some of the issues, but there were other “more important issues” to be sorted out.
The bombshell exploded when he said: "It's absolutely 100% not about money. This is not a money issue. The politics is what I have to deal with personally. It's tough being me playing for England.”
When someone who has captained England and represented the country in over 200 matches, scored over 11,000 runs and scored 30 hundreds makes a statement about having to deal with the kind of “politics” that is making it difficult to play any longer, it’s alarming. It’s an issue that could send English cricket into a turmoil.
In this day and age where cricketers prefer the lure of the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) to international honours, Pietersen’s denial of the money argument isn’t very believable. However, his other statements echo his pride in donning the three lions and representing England in the classical format. His retirement from the one-day formats was due to a few contractual terms and the unwillingness of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to make a few adjustments. It was obvious that it could have been avoided and England could have retained a power-player in their one-day ranks.
Pietersen’s exact words were, “I can't give any assurances that the next Test won't be my last.” He also made it clear that things will be clear after the third Test at Lord’s. Going into the crucial game – one that England have to win to save the series and their numero uno status – the whole saga threatens to divide the dressing room. If things are sorted out before the next Test, England can go into the game with a relatively settled frame of mind. However, keeping in perspective the long run-ins, Pietersen’s decision to quit Test cricket would have serious repercussions.
The whole drama couldn’t have come at a more inappropriate time as England are clinging on to their shaky crown. Pietersen demonstrated his class and worth at Headingley. He has the ability to turn game on its head almost single-handedly and forms a dynamic component in a line-up that contains more sedate players like Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott. Take Pietersen out of the equation and the same formidable batting loses its sheen and punch.
With the crucial tour to India scheduled later this year, Pietersen’s absence could affect England’s chances big time. His innovative style and fearless approach would come in handy in spinning conditions – where England batsmen have struggled off late. If he is forced into premature retirement, it would be a sad development not just for England but for world cricket. You need players like him to spice up contests and make them more interesting and competitive.
Through all that, Strauss kept mum on the issue and repeatedly stated at the press conference that he wasn’t ready to face questions on Pietersen. The England captain praised Pietersen’s fantastic knock, but shied away from delving into the latest controversy that threatens to mar the series. The ECB have to go into damage control mode as a lot is at stake on the field of play. They just cannot afford to lose Pietersen. They have to bury their hatchet – and their ego – to come up with a solution that is acceptable to all and dispels the negative energy ahead of a critical Test match.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)