Can they go any lower?

2014-01-18 00:00

THE England cricket team have unravelled at such speed that it is difficult to remember that just four months ago they were bathing in the afterglow of a third successive Ashes series win. The then looming tour of Australia was being regarded as nothing more than a celebratory jaunt for the invincible heroes(at least as far as the dismal Aussies were concerned).

Now all the talk is of a new era of English cricket. The world-class off spinner Graeme Swann has gone, broken by a physical ailment that could not cope with the sustained assault of the Australian batsmen. Jonathan Trott, too, has gone, maybe not forever, but damaged by his own mental frailty, which was ruthlessly exploited on the field by Mitchell Johnson and off it by the thuggish David Warner.

James Anderson, described (admittedly only by the British media) as the best fast bowler in the world, has been exposed as less than ordinary in conditions that are not conducive to swing bowling. “The best wicketkeeper batsman in Test cricket”, Matt Prior, is no longer in the team after a string of performances in which he looked like neither a batsman nor a keeper.

“The finest opening batsman in the world”, English captain Alastair Cook, has become a walking wicket and error-prone skipper who is living a nightmare from which he must be feeling that there no escape. One feels sorry for this decent man who has enough to worry about without being embroiled in the collapseof his team as well as the latest and almost certainly last English cricket saga involving Kevin Pietersen.

When the English Cricket Board bent to Cook’s wishes that the prattish South African be re-integrated into the England team following the textgate scandal, it was only too predictable that the KP saga would end in tears. It was clear then that KP’s lordly ego and unrestrained self aggrandisement would remain a grating presence in the fraught environment of a cricket dressing room where distorted personalities can destroy the best efforts to create some degree of harmonious energy.

KP has made many runs for England but has also proven that he lacks the capacity to understand that his is not the only way to perform as a top order Test batsman. He has played a number of thrilling innings for “his country”, as he calls it, but has also displayed an arrogant refusal to tailor his batting to the situation in a match. Time and again he has frittered his wicket away when his team’s interests demanded discipline and circumspection.

This was nowhere more apparent than in the Perth Test match, when he made no effort to bat with the English tail-enders on the grounds that he had no confidence in their ability to deal with Johnson. His lack of trust may have been justified on the basis of recent history but for him to say so publicly what he might have been thinking was unforgivable. In wartime soldiers have been shot for less.

Batting with tail-enders in difficult circumstances is a prospect relished by any classy batsman. Some of cricket’s great Test victories have been achieved on the back of just such cat and mouse efforts, which are often the most entertaining of all the end games of an innings. When KP did not even try to bat with the tail he presented his worst face to his own team. Captain, coach and team-mates must have been galled at his behaviour. He would instantly have lost respect and sympathy in the dressing room where his presence would have become cancerous to the team’s efforts to save something in the series.

For Cook and Andy Flower there can be no way back for Pietersen into their England team. They went out on a limb for him and, prat that he is, he has let them down. Those people like Michael Vaughan and the ridiculous Piers Morgan, whose ego exceeds even that of Pietersen, are deluded if they think the England team can ever again function as a unit with KP in it. It is not the fault of captain and coach if Pietersen’s Test career has come to an end. They just have a realistic understanding of the dynamics of a cricket team and the difficulties of dealing with the contamination caused by the presence of an excessive ego. Pietersen has brought it all upon himself.

In a few years a new England team will emerge from the ruins of the latest Ashes and KP will be history as far as “his country” is concerned. It is absurd that another Ashes tour takes place as soon as next year but a fresh England team might even regain the urn against an ageing Aussie team.

Teams do renew themselves, often surprising their own supporters in the process. It is actually the process of recovery that is important rather than the quality of the playing strength. The Australians struggled under a regime of ageing stars and fared even worse under an alien coach but Darren Lehmann has restored them on the simple basis of a return to values prized by Australian cricket.

England did it well when Nasser Hussein and Duncan Fletcher transformed a bunch of perpetual under-achievers into a tough, competitive Test team not easily beaten by anybody. It is always tempting for coach and captain to want to hang onto those players who have done it all but the old timers often stand in the way of renewal unless they are cut from special cloth. It paid England, for example, to replace a trusted stalwart, Graeme Thorpe, with Pietersen, but the circle of life requires now that KP leave the premises.

The South Africans may be in the early stage of their own renewal now that Jacques Kallis has retired from Test cricket. Hopefully Graeme Smith has a few years left in him but his cricket yesterdays are more than his tomorrows. He has a young family and possesses a cricket career that has achieved as much as he ever set out to do. When Gary Kirsten retired as coach I am sure that Smith paused to take stock of his life. With Kallis gone, Smith may not be far behind him and then the three pillars of a great team will be gone.

It says something for Kirsten and Smith that the core of a strong team remain. It is a blend of different personalities and cultures. It is blessedly free from overbearing characters. The players support each other and rejoice in each other’s success. Long may it all last, but last for ever it will not.

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