England batsman Kevin Pietersen plays at shot on the morning of the 3rd day of the 1st Test of the 2013 England v Australia Ashes series at Trent Bridge, Nottingham.

Odd Man Out

In England by Bill Ricquier

Image: England batsman Kevin Pietersen plays at shot on the morning of the 3rd day of the 1st Test of the 2013 England v Australia Ashes series at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. UKKevin Pietersen by Nic Redhead from Birmingham under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in iits own way.” ( Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

Does this apply to cricket teams as well ?  The thought is prompted by the brouhaha arising from the publication of Kevin Pietersen’s autobiography  🙁 KP: My Autobiography- I should make clear that I have not read it.)

I am not suggesting that a cricket team is anything like a family. But cricket teams do spend a lot of time together. The Ryder Cup is often heralded as a supreme example of team ethic at play. True , but the participants are together for a few days at most; it shouldn’t be too difficult to stick together. A professional football season goes on – and on and on – for a long time but the spells of togetherness, however intense – everything in modern sport is incredibly intense –  though frequent, are relatively brief.

Cricket is different.  In English domestic cricket county teams are basically living in each others’ pockets for six months.  At international level a cricket tour is not dissimilar for the tourists : of course it used to be worse – or at least different  – with a tour by an MCC team to Australia involving two lengthy boat trips and numerous matches outside the Test series: altogether five months or so away from home. So cricketers are thrust together to an unusual degree, and the fear of the media spotlight on off-field activities makes escape from the team embrace less straightforward than it was in the days of Denis Compton or even David Gower.

You do not have to have read the book or to be a member of the England dressing room to know that what we have here is one unhappy team. That became very clear early on in the disastrous tour of Australia in 2013-14; in fact it was apparent by the end of the first Test at Brisbane when it was announced that Jonathan Trott would be returning home with a stress related illness. Attitude- wise England barely turned up for the second Test at Adelaide and by the end of the next game at Perth, two other senior players, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann , had withdrawn from the fray.

Of course my comparison with a family is flippant; families are more complex organisms than a group of people getting together to play a game, even professionally. Generally a cricket team is unhappy because it is losing, especially if it is losing regularly. ( Even then it is all relative; in the 1930s Northamptonshire went seven years without winning a county championship match : apparently they just got on with it – well, nobody died… .) but it must occasionally happen the other way round: a team keeps losing because it is unhappy. That seems to have been what has happened here.

Of course , we don’t know – not just because , like me, you have not read the book, but because we were not in the dressing room. Michael Atherton , in his splendid review of the book , has a comment about this . He says that in his time he saw players consumed with rage , traumatized by fear and transfixed by nerves – but that for the most part the dressing rooms of his day were full of fun, laughter and joy. Well ,  maybe: Atherton ( a brilliant writer) was a fine player and a goodish leader of a baddish team , but never exactly Smiley Face , particularly when he was captain.

Simon Barnes, wring for Cricinfo, has the best explanation for England’ s travails : Mitchell Johnson. But the peremptory firing of Pietersen made it seem unarguable that his presence in the side was a major problem,

Nobody emerges well from this saga, although  one cannot help feeling sorry for the hapless Alastair Cook. But naturally it is the administrators who come out worst. ( One fears for the future of the modern game in the hands of cynical businessmen at the helm of the Board for Cricket Control of India and their lackeys at the England and Wales Cricket Board and Cricket Australia.)

Sacking Pietersen without a clear public explanation and slapping a confidentiality clause on him which expired on 1 October was a recipe for precisely where we are now.

Pietersen was unquestionably a great player, certainly England’ best since David Gower, arguably her best since Ted Dexter and Peter May. He was also a very difficult character : again, you do not have to be personally involved to realize that. He was a former captain who in that role had had a difficult relationship with the coach promoted after his sacking, Andy Flower. So it was a difficult situation. But , really,  England have a back room staff comprising food tasters, spiritual advisers, psychiatrists and , yes , even the occasional cricket coach. Isn’t there somebody there who can sit down, knock a few heads together and make things work? ( One shudders to think of the ECB HR -speak job advert…)

Mention of Gower reminds me of the way his career ended. He didn’t fit in with the lugubrious but worthy work ethic of manager Mickey Stewart and captain Graham Gooch. So they dropped him . Being  a fully committed professional means more than talent and career record : Gower had a higher Test average than Gooch, who was able to ease past him as England’s leading run scorer. No , the most important thing is to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

Of course happiness can be over- rated as Doc Martin reminds us. One of England’s most successful teams to tour Australia was Ray Illingworth’ side which won The Ashes in 1970-71. They should have had their win bonus forfeited as a punishment for the song they recorded to celebrate the victory. That is not the point I am making. The leading players –  Illingworth  himself, Geoffrey Boycott, John Edrich and John Snow – were all, if not unhappy, then at least grumpy in the extreme. And extremely professional.

That’s what it takes. Back to basics with a coach of the calibre of Darren Lehmann who has worked miracles for Australia Or is he a one – off?

Bill Ricquier, 13/10/2014

This article was published in The Island: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=112088

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