In any sport, a team are in trouble when their most divisive member is, due to his talents on the field, indispensable. Managing the player becomes a complicated balancing act, where his on-field contribution is weighed against the negative impact of his personality upon the rest of the team.
Kevin Pietersen had to spend a lot of runs to buy his place in the England team. This has been the case for most of his career, especially in the two years since he was caught sending South African players derogatory texts about his then captain, Andrew Strauss. After he was reinstated, Pietersen paid his way with a century in Mumbai that was arguably the finest Test innings of the past decade, displaying that inimitable Pietersen mix of courage, self-belief and outlandish skill.
Since then, he let his account run down. He scored an important but chancy hundred at Old Trafford, and almost pulled off an improbable win at The Oval, but otherwise was inconsistent during the winter Ashes. By the end of the return series, being England’s top run-scorer was not enough. England looked to Pietersen for leadership. If it was not to be found in his character, then it had to come in runs. Instead, while he was in form, he was cornered and thwarted by Peter Siddle, and by Sydney he was a pale KP hologram.
Perhaps his end was written in his second-last Test match. For nearly the whole of Boxing Day, he batted as if to send a personal message to his arch critic, Geoff Boycott. Patting back half-volleys, dropping rank long-hops at his feet, he passed Boycott’s career total in pointedly Boycottish fashion. The next morning, after all that work, Pietersen tossed it away with a playground tonk. Here was the paradox. Pietersen was England’s top scorer, yet the slowness of his innings couldn’t be mistaken for grit or responsibility. It was just more of Kevin being Kevin, all for Kevin.
In the calculations of his worth, England’s selectors decided that Pietersen needed more than half-centuries to keep his place, and more than 294 runs. He needed big hundreds, or, failing that, he needed to show that he really cared.
Plenty of outsiders have commented on whether Pietersen’s axing is warranted or a failing of the leadership to control and channel his talent. It might be both. Only those inside the England squad know what effect Pietersen had on the team. Scraps will filter out, eventually, to demonstrate both his obnoxious ways and the inability of Alastair Cook, Andrew Flower and the rest of the team to bring out his best. It’s like a no-fault divorce; both sides share some blame and the cord is cut. But once Pietersen failed to convince his teammates, not just on the field but in the many small things that make up a long cricket tour, that he really did care about them and their success, once they ceased to believe he was with them, then he had to go.
Pietersen will feel he is hard done by, but if the England leaders were more hard-headed they would have dropped him after the third Test. If they were really ruthless about it, they would not have brought him to Australia at all. If they were uncompromising about team-first principles, the South African texts would have been the end of his career.
He has been cut plenty of slack, in recognition of his run-scoring. But clearly they have had enough. In a style that has been characteristic of Cook’s leadership, England have done the right thing, but at the wrong time, trying to ignore the problem and then only addressing it when it was too late.
If Pietersen was not held accountable for his performance in Australia, who would be? Flower has gone; if it was ‘He goes or I go’, the ECB has neatly resolved it. They both go. Cook, four years younger than Pietersen, is the only viable captain and can rely on future opposition bowling attacks lacking Australia’s accuracy. It is impossible to see him rebuilding a team with Pietersen in it. If the ECB had to choose between Cook and Pietersen, it was a matter of picking the man with a future over the man with a past.
In Australia, Pietersen might not have been England’s worst player, but he brought their worst attitude. They were let down by all of their senior men, but Cook was outfoxed, James Anderson was worn out, Ian Bell was stripped of his scoring options, and Matt Prior, Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott had their lives made a misery by an insatiable opponent. Each of those players was defeated by Australia.
For Pietersen, Australia had a different plan: play on his ego and he will get himself out. Pietersen duly did that, chipping and slogging his way to oblivion, selling himself cheaply when he could least afford it. As his teammates tried to rally around their captain, Pietersen was to be found signing autographs, comforting himself in the knowledge that among the public, who didn’t know him personally, he remained famous. He can now go to the celebrities’ playground of the Indian Premier League, the Miami Beach of cricket, where he will find himself in his element. He bows out of international cricket as an acknowledged player of great innings, the key player in winning back the Ashes for England after nine lost series in a row, a supreme batsman on all surfaces, and yet something less than the numbers beside his name.
Test cricket is not about which batsman makes the most runs in a series. It’s about winning. This year, Pietersen’s influence on England has steadily dropped to a net negative. The decision for England’s selectors was a long time coming, in deference to his record and the inevitable criticism they would face, but in the end it was unanimous and, probably, not that hard.