By Nick Friend
With the fallout to Kevin Pietersen’s no-holds-barred autobiography in full swing, there remain so many unanswered questions. Bitterness, resentment and disappointment reign supreme over English Cricket. Why did he fall out with Natal? Why did he fall out with Nottinghamshire? Why did he fall out with Hampshire? Why has he not been retained by Surrey? Three more pertinent questions remain though. Three questions that both he and us – the paying public – have the right to understand. Why has Andy Flower been given a new job after overseeing the tour from hell? What exactly did Pietersen do wrong in Australia? Most importantly, why will England’s most talented and crowd-pleasing asset never put on the Three Lions again?
Alastair Cook was – in a way – right in his recent assertion that Pietersen’s book ’has tarnished a successful era.’ ‘Right’ in the sense that KP’s rant – and that is exactly what it is – appears to confirm prejudices that many already had of several ECB pillars. The idea that Matt Prior was the glue that kept this well-oiled machine together contrasts with Pietersen’s belief that as Prior’s stock grew as the ‘ultimate team player’ (Cook’s words again), so did his ego.
Ricky Ponting and Michael Vaughan are just two to have supported Pietersen’s dim view of the ‘bullying culture’ that existed in the field. One only has to think back to the double-teapots and death glares bandied around by Messrs Sidebottom, Anderson, Broad and Swann to understand Pietersen’s complaints. Indeed, Swann – who wrote far worse things about Pietersen in his autobiography The Breaks are Off – yet this was issue was quickly smothered. Swann, himself, left Northamptonshire in 2004 after a series of bust-ups with coach Kepler Wessels. Similarly, Duncan Fletcher dropped him after misdemeanours on a tour of South Africa.
Now we come to Andy Flower, the man who Pietersen refers to in the book as ‘Flower. As in dour.’ There are two sides to this debate. England had unrivalled success under the Zimbabwean between 2009 and November 2013. They lifted the World Twenty20 Cup, won the Ashes on three occasions and won a series in India. In spite of this, Pietersen claims that the team was good enough that until the arrival of Mitchell Johnson, it was beating all around them in spite of Flower’s presence – not, as the ECB would suggest, because of Flower’s presence. He does, however, make the valid point that a cricket coach’s job differs hugely from that of a football coach. It is about man-management – not the tactical nous required of a Mourinho or a Guardiola. The very fact that Steven Finn was deemed ‘unselectable’, Jonathan Trott was too mentally exhausted, Swann retired and Pietersen was sacked suggests that Andy Flower managed the tour poorly. Yet, he walked into a new high-profile job – created specifically for him.
Pietersen, on the other hand, has been vilified by organisation that employed him and profited from his brilliance for nine years, 104 Test matches and 136 ODIs. But why? We’ve heard of whistling in the dressing room, taking young players out for a drink, playing poor shots, getting an earlier flight home, and many more petty point-scoring childish excuses. This is what really grates with me. The ECB don’t like him. Fact. Given the dearth of concrete evidence against England’s highest ever run-scorer, this appears to be the reason for his sacking. The time to sack Pietersen was after the text message scandal in 2012. KP admitted as much. Once reintegrated, Pietersen should have been able to retire on his own terms – as a great of the game. Arch nemeses Swann and Prior both spoke of his improved behaviour. Swann went so far to describe him as ‘good as gold.’ Something doesn’t add up about how it has come to this. Michael Carberry, a victim of Pietersen’s behaviour according to the botched ECB ‘dossier’, tweeted in support of the batsman. Chris Tremlett, another member of the Blunder Down Under, tweeted his veiled support of the batsman. Yet, for me, what is most powerful is the link between Pietersen’s character and his book. We are talking about a man who tore up his contract at Nottinghamshire because they were relegated. He issued an ultimatum to the ECB when he was England captain – Moores or him. He threw Andrew Strauss under a bus with his text messages in the build-up to his 100th Test. If there is one thing that Pietersen is guilty of throughout his career, it is being too honest. He has spoken out of turn because he is a perfectionist and is direct. He sees a problem and he points it out. Nobody trains harder, nobody entertains more. He created the switch-hit – a shot so outrageous that the MCC held a meeting about him. Much like Gower, Gascoigne, Hoddle, Le Tissier and many others before them – English sportsmen are meant to conform. They are ‘yes’ men. Pietersen is the opposite. He challenges authority. Despite his differences with Flower, he makes a point of stating his respect for his decision – alongside Henry Olonga – to wear a black armband in reference to the death of democracy in Zimbabwe – a decision that led to Flower fleeing the country.
Reading Pietersen’s book leaves a sour taste. There is a marked lack of cricket. For a man who played the most savage and remarkable innings ever seen, it’s disappointing that he doesn’t go into any meaningful detail Headingley, The Oval, The Gabba, Mumbai and Colombo stand out. He dismantled bowlers such as Muralitharan, Warne, Steyn, Morkel, McGrath, Gillespie and Lee. Yet, throughout the book, his England career comes across as one long argument. That fact, more than anything saddens me. Alastair Cook will break all of England’s run scoring records – of that I am sure. He will probably go down as England’s ‘best’ ever batsman.
However, Kevin Pietersen will go down as the greatest. A man capable of winning a game in a session, scaring the opposition into submission. Sadly, we will never watch him again in England colours. And the questions remains – why not?