By Nishad Pai Vaidya
With their No 1 ranking at stake, England have done the unthinkable by dropping their ace batsman - albeit controversial - Kevin Pietersen. A week full of speculation has ended with the axe falling on Pietersen, even as he tried to broker peace with the England management through a video on YouTube. Leaving the whole drama and the video aside, even the sparkling hundred at Headingley wasn’t enough to save him as the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) were intent on sending out a strong message. The jury would be divided over Pietersen’s predicament, but most would agree that the individual isn’t bigger than the team.
Hugh Morris, the Managing Director of England Cricket made the announcement: “The success of the England team has been built on a unity of purpose and trust. Whilst we have made every attempt to find a solution to enable Kevin to be selected, we have sadly had to conclude that, in the best interest of the team, he will miss the Lord's Test.” This statement echoes the sentiment that the whole drama has taken its toll on the England team – one that is desperate to save the Test series and the number one ranking against South Africa.
To make better sense of this conclusion, one has to look into James Anderson’s recent claims. The England fast-bowler admitted that the whole drama was an unnecessary distraction in the midst of the crucial series. However, the more shocking statement was when he said, “‘Kevin talked about having issues within the dressing room. What’s frustrating is that this was, literally, the first we knew about it. Kevin has mentioned nothing to us.”
This is clearly in reference to the infamous press conference in the aftermath of the Headingley Test – one during which Pietersen spoke about various issues he had with the management and some members of the dressing room. Anderson’s words reflect the whole gravity of the situation and a possible communication gap.
At the centre of the whole controversy are certain text messages derogative of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower which Pietersen is said to have sent to South African players AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. While the exact words of the messages haven’t been made public, they are said to be critical of the England captain. In fact, even the ECB is in the dark with regards to its contents. The YouTube video may have come at a time when Pietersen wanted to make peace, but the Board had given him extra time to produce the messages and prove that they were in no way derogatory. It was a condition he failed to fulfil and as a result the axe fell.
Nasser Hussain, the former England captain expressed his surprise at Pietersen’s axing particularly because of the splendid knock he scripted in the last Test. Hussain told The Telegraph, “"He's had a bad week off the field, and some really bad decision-making started with that press conference where he blamed English cricket for all his woes." Leaving the text messages and the YouTube video aside, one simply cannot ignore the role the press-conference has played in the whole sage. Pietersen didn’t reveal too much, but certain statements left a bad taste in the mouth.
Jonathan Agnew stated in his column for the BBC that, “The move will split opinion, but in a team sport you have to have 11 individuals pulling together. You can have different types of people in a squad but they all have to play for the team and respect both their team-mates and the game.” Agnew said that England have been brave enough to do it and the selectors have sent out a very strong message – one that most players would agree with.
The ECB are clearly trying to affirm the importance of the team’s unity and that one individual’s whims and fancies cannot affect the larger interests.
While it is important to maintain team decorum, one cannot avoid asking the question: Have England made a huge tactical error? The answer would be a resounding yes.
Pietersen’s knock at Headingley highlighted his value to this setup as he took on the might of the South African pacers almost single-handedly. In a must-win game, you need a Pietersen to swing the game in your favour – a luxury England would miss at Lord’s. His replacement is the young Jonathan Bairstow – who is touted as the future of England cricket. He is a promising young player, but has been thrown into a pit in a big game.
One mustn’t forget that the same Bairstow struggled against the West Indian pacers earlier this year when they toured England. They made him hop and dance to the short delivery and exposed a major flaw in his technique. Imagine the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander trying to pepper him with short stuff. Furthermore, England do not have a stable No 6 six as James Taylor is just one Test old – although he did make a good impression at Leeds. Unlike in the recent past, the batting order looks relatively weaker now. Take Pietersen out and you are left with batsmen like Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott – prolific yet sedate batsmen. The punch is certainly gone.
Looking at all the sides of the arguments, one can say that Pietersen’s axing is probably a necessary evil. It would have been ideal if the matter would have been settled and the two sides moved on. However, there would have been certain strains with Pietersen in the dressing room and the whole atmosphere would have taken time to improve. Tactically, the move is suicidal, but it’s the larger interests of the team that matter most.
(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)