While the rest of the country celebrates the end of what has been a magnificent sporting spectacle at the Olympic stadium, a curtain may have been drawn on one of the most impressive sporting talents in the country. Kevin Pietersen’s exclusion from the Third Test against South Africa this Thursday perhaps represents the end of the International career of the finest batsmen to represent this country in the last decade.
Anyone who saw Pietersen’s century at Headingley last weekend must have been assured that they were witnessing a piece of sporting theatre every bit as vibrant and masterly as anything the Olympics delivered in London. A formidable South African attack, with talents such as Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, widely considered a modern great, were dispatched with frightening ferocity. England recovered from a perilous 110-4 to finish the evening at a 351-5 with Pietersen unbeaten on 149. Sadly, as is the case with Pietersen, it is not his on field performance but off field indiscretions that have cost him his place in the squad. Alleged texts between Pietersen and members of the South African squad, which apparently criticise teammates; although South African team management insists the texts were simply ‘bantering between teammates.’ Whatever the contents of the texts, they still represent poor judgement from Pietersen and have proved the final straw in a long burning phoney war between the ECB and their prize batsmen.
Ever since his dismissal as captain in 2009 Pietersen has increasingly become an isolated figure within the England setup. This summer has seen the issue come to a head with KP declaring his intention to withdraw from International one day cricket. This is a clear breach of his central contract, and since the announcement a game of brinkmanship has played out between the ECB and its prize batter. While both parties must share the blame for the wrangling over the contract the arguments are due to the wider pressures that cricket is being placed under.
International tours have changed from enjoyable experiences into claustrophobic pressure cookers as players are besieged by media and the demands of professionalism. The damage this can cause is evident in the likes of Matthew Hoggard, Michael Yardy and Marcus Trescothick, who have all battled with depression while on England duty. Few England players want to be way from home for such long periods particular when they have young families, as it the case with Pietersen. Also the sheer amount of international cricket is also proving to be a major cause of consternation between the ECB and its players, Pietersenmight be the most vocal of its players in his opposition to the number of 50 over matches but his is not a lone voice. However, Kevin is prone to stick his foot in his mouth and texting South African player’s midway through a test series making derogatory comments about members of the England setup was a colossal blunder. The texts are inexcusable, but they seem, from a distance, to be a man venting his frustration caused by problems that are affecting everyone in cricket.
All the old criticisms of Pietersen were immediately reiterated; plastic Englishman, egotistical arse and money grabbing mercenary being the main three. All have grains of truth yet all miss the point, for all of his faults and failings as a man it is all tolerable for his undeniable genius as a cricket player. Dropping him before the final match of the most important test series this current England set up has faced reeks of ill judgement and seems rushed by the management. Some might regard the decision as a brave one by the selectors, discarding a player for the good of the side as a whole is their argument.
This may be persuasive if Pietersen was not such a bag of contradictions at the moment, as well as being akin to a bull in a china shop when at the crease on current form. The man seems torn between a desire to leave a lasting legacy as a test batsman or to be with his young family, while tapping into the vast wealth the IPL offers. Surely the best time to resolve this decision would have been in September when his central contract comes up for renewal. Even with his texts I ‘am of the opinion that dropping Pietersen fails to resolve the direction of his career and damages the ability of the team to overcome the task that awaits them at Lords. Surely gritting their teeth for one more test match before acting on the Pietersen issue would have been a more sensible course of action. England need to take 20 wickets at Lord’s and the best way to do this is to field a five man bowling attack; the removal of Pietersen makes this option less viable.
While Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor are both promising batsman, a comparison between the innings of Taylor and Pietersen in their partnership at Headingley provides ample evidence of the gulf in class between them and the man they succeed. The selectors will either have to take a huge gamble on one of them or risk lacking the firepower to dismiss the South Africans, the definition of being stuck between a rock and hard place.
This may not be the end of Pietersen’s International career and everyone involved in English cricket must hope this is the case. But, if that 149 represents the last telling score as a test match player then the fear that Kevin Pietersen would fail to live up to his breathtaking potential will be realised. The true sadness of this would be that it was not due to his capabilities as a batsman but his temperament as a person.