Kevin Pietersen’s axing came against the run of play, just after the mercurial batsman had scored a thrilling 149 in the Leeds Test match. However, Arunabha Sengupta looks at various instances to find that English selectors have been known to make such bold decisions – some of which have turned out to be wise and some that have backfired.
Could England, struggling to face the might of South Africa, really afford to drop their only top order batsman capable of answering fire with fire? Is there anyone else in the English ranks – South African or otherwise – who can pull superfast deliveries with élan and also straight drive Dale Steyn for six?
However, given a choice between confiscating Kevin Pietersen’s cell phone and showing him the door, the selectors have gone for the bolder option. Even the most diehard fan of the only superstar of the English line up will probably agree that this was expected, to weed the dressing room spoiler from their midst.
While the much-touted series, that seemed to be approaching the levels of a decent contest, can very well revert back to an Oval-like cakewalk, the team management really did not have much of a choice. Surreptitious text messages, loaded with pointed slangs, sent to the opposition camp, amounts to treason. No team will stand for it.
Additionally, England have had a long history of axing big names on varied grounds – discipline, performance or horses for courses. Some of the moves have paid off, some of them have bombed, but the selectors of the country have a track record of not flinching while pulling the trigger on a celebrity target.
In England, cricket has managed to remain a refined sport for the majority of followers. Besides, the public is always partial to the archetypical common English character and any flamboyance is viewed with suspicion. Perhaps such an environment makes it easier for authorities to come down heavily on the many a star who has temporarily lost his lustre or his way.
Given below is a list of 10 previous instances of courageous omissions.
1. Fred Trueman (1956) – When Trueman rushed in to hurl his thunderbolts and drive the Indian batsmen towards the square-leg during his debut series of 1952, captain Len Hutton had foretold that he would take at least five years to mature.
While the prediction had been largely accurate, by 1956, he had become a force to reckon with and had bowled with a lot of speed and success in the first two Ashes Tests when he was dropped for the Old Trafford encounter. It was a dry dust bowl and Brian Statham shared a few overs with Trevor Bailey before Jim Laker picked 19 wickets.
2. Ken Barrington (1965) – At Edgbaston against New Zealand, Barrington played himself into form by scoring a painstaking 137 against a dreadful bowling attack. Coming in at 54 for one, he spent an hour without scoring even though captain Mike Smith asked him to hurry up. Bringing the game almost to a standstill, he was the last man out in a total of 435.
Though England won by nine wickets, Barrington was dropped "for the good of cricket". The chairman of selectors, Doug Insole, wrote to him “it is the only practical way of demonstrating that we're not prepared to condone cricket of the Edgbaston variety.”
3. Colin Milburn (1966) – Milburn was not an established star, but he did start his career like a meteor on the rise, capturing public imagination with his powerful hitting and indomitable courage against the West Indian pace attack. He started with 94 on his debut, hit 126 with three sixes in his second Test and counter-attacked for 42 in the final match of the series.
Yet, he was dropped after the series following a school of thought that he was too bulky to be sufficiently mobile in the field.
4. Geoff Boycott (1967) – In front of his home crowd, Boycott fought off poor form by plodding along for six hours on the first day to remain unbeaten on 106. The media went on overdrive, criticising his selfish approach against a mediocre Indian attack, handicapped further by injuries to Bishan Bedi and Rusi Surti.
He had set out to be there at the close regardless of his responsibilities as a public entertainer, wrote John Woodcock in The Times. In thePlayfair’s Cricket Monthly, Gordon Ross voiced, “Every cricketer on the ground winced when he played a full toss or half-volley back to the bowler.”
He scored faster on the second day, ending up with 246 not out off 573 minutes and 555 balls, and after India followed on, England won by six wickets. But, the Yorkshire opener was dropped for the next Test.
5. Derek Underwood (1971 and later) – Bowling during a phase which witnessed some of the sublimely great spinners, Underwood ended with figures better than any of his peers. It was not for nothing that the nickname ‘Deadly Derek’ haunted the opposition batsmen, especially on damp surfaces. No one was a bigger hero after he had picked up four wickets in 27 balls to bring England the Ashes during the last minutes of the 1968 series.
Yet, there was a feeling that he did not turn the ball enough, and so, the best spinner of England since the days of Hedley Verity seldom played a full series. In 1971 against India and in 1972 during the Ashes series, Norman Gifford was preferred as a greater spinner of the ball. This trend continued in later years with Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds often chosen ahead of him. Perhaps this was one time when the brave decisions backfired.
6. John Snow (1971) – Snow had emerged as the Ashes hero the previous season when he infamously collided with Sunil Gavaskar at Lord’s, sending the diminutive Indian master sprawling on the ground. At Georgetown in 1967-68 he had bumped similarly into Clive Lloyd, but the 5'4" Indian received far more sympathy than the 6'4" West Indian who had nearly trampled Snow into the ground. As he tossed Gavaskar’s bat back to him, Farokh Engineer, the other batsman at the crease, asked him to pick someone his own size.
There was a major outcry, and Snow was dropped for the second Test. He returned for the final encounter at the Oval, and tore off Gavaskar's chain and medallion with a bouncer that zipped under the chin. He bowled the Indian opener for six in the first innings and had him lbw for a duck in the second, but India ended up winning the Test and series.
7. Geoff Boycott (1981-82) – Trust Boycott to make this list twice. He had just become the leading run-getter in Test cricket when England moved to Calcutta for the fourth Test. During the Test, Boycott claimed that he was too unwell to field.
Later, his teammates sweating out at the Eden Gardens discovered that the opening batsman had been teeing off at the Tollygunge Golf Club with reserve players Geoff Cook and Paul Allott. Although Boycott claimed that physio Bernie Thomas had advised him to get fresh air, captain Keith Fletcher, coach Raman Subba Row and several fellow players were livid and the opening batsman was sent back to England.
8. Geoff Miller (1982) – Against India at Manchester, Miller scored 98 and added 169 with Ian Botham. However, with the ball, he was less than impressive, taking one wicket for 51. He was dropped for the 3rd Test at the Oval, since his primary role was considered to be that of an off-spinner.
9. Mike Gatting (1987) – When ‘the sack’ had a double meaning. Gatting had been a successful captain, and under him England had drawn the first Test against the mighty West Indies at Trent Bridge. However, the tabloids The Sun and Today accused him of playing other games well into the night, with barmaid Louise Shipman, to the extent of taking her to his room.
The selectors, waiting for him to slip up ever since the Shakoor Rana incident and his hard-hitting autobiography, axed him as captain and player. Gatting’s denial fell on deaf ears. The Amul advertisement hoardings of the day showed a plate of sandwiches with the caption, “If life’s Gatting bad, have a ball with Amul Butter. You can also take it to your room.”
Thus started the infamous season of four captains. John Emburey, Chris Cowdrey and Graham Gooch were appointed to the hot seat during the course of the next four Tests, all of which were lost.
10. David Gower (1992) – Another bold decision that was perhaps unadvised. David Gower did score only 27 and one in his final Test, but had caressed a 73 off 85 balls in the encounter before that.
That Graham Gooch, the captain who allegedly did not want the left hander in the side, soon overtook Gower to become the top run getter in Tests for England fans many a conspiracy theory. To make it worse, England ended up losing all three of their Tests in India.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)