It’s fair to say it’s quite a week for English cricket, despite the national team not going anywhere near a cricket ground.
But that is the nature of Kevin Pietersen, who has made of career out of emptying bars when he is at the crease, and filling them with impassioned debate when he’s not.
After a summer that ended with victory over India in the Test series and some promising performances by the new look team, English cricket has reverted to its default setting of crisis.
The publication of Pietersen’s new book has led to an outburst in name-calling, mud-slinging and tit-for-tat retaliations more befitting the school playground than a group of grown men.
So who is telling the truth in this situation? Was the England dressing room a festering nest of vipers run by bullies and cowards, as Pietersen would have us believe; or is this all, in the words of Graeme Swann, ‘the biggest work of fiction since Jules Verne’, and was it in fact a happy and contented team that for a brief period dominated the world?
While we may never know exactly what happened behind the closed doors of the dressing room, on reflection perhaps they both have a point here. Even while England were riding high as the number one ranked test side in the world, it was not uncommon to see the bowlers (Swann in particular) letting rip at whichever unfortunate fielder had incurred their wrath.
In the past few days, two former international captains in Ricky Ponting and Graeme Smith, have backed up Pietersen’s clams about this culture. Neither of them, it should be noted, would hardly be considered his number one fan.
On the other hand, this is Test cricket we are talking about. Swann himself was dismissive when questioned about this bullying culture, replying scathingly that ‘this is international sport, not the under-11s.’
There is great story about Allan Border, when in the scorching heat of Madras in 1986 a clearly suffering Dean Jones asked permission from his captain to leave the field “retired hurt”. Border let rip, accusing of Jones of being ‘weak’, and threatening to replace him with someone stronger.
Jones stayed at the crease, and in between bouts of vomiting made 210. He later described it as the defining moment of his career.
International cricket is a tough business and sometimes harsh words or actions are required to galvanise a player or team. As Geoffrey Boycott was fond of saying when coaching young hopefuls: ‘If you want nice things said to you, go to your mother for coaching.’
What the whole sorry affairs reveals more than anything else is the myth of team spirit. It wasn’t so long ago, on the eve of his 100th test, that Pietersen lauded the England dressing room as ‘the best environment I have ever experienced.’ Is this the same toxic environment he describes in his book?
It is a predicament that calls to mind the famous quote of the former Tottenham Hotspur and Barcelona striker Steve Archibald that ‘team spirit is an illusion only glimpsed in the aftermath of victory.’
Success, and in particular a period of sustained success, can paper over the problems within any team. Victory means that big egos and difficult personalities can be tolerated. When things start going wrong, it is this idea of team spirit that is first to crumble.
Consider this from Swann as regards last winter’s disastrous Ashes tour: ‘we had a magnificent ethos and team spirit until Mitchell Johnson took his blindfold off and it fell apart.’ It is only in defeat that the divisions in a team start to really reveal themselves.
Cricket provides a unique challenge to any other sport, quite simply because of the amount of time players spent together. With tours that last for months and with days on end in the dressing room, it provides the ultimate test of the bonds between players.
It is clearly unreasonable to expect successful teams to be composed of a bunch of best mates. It is common knowledge that Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist never saw eye to eye, but it didn’t stop them from forming the core of one of the most successful sides Test cricket has ever known.
Friendship may not be necessary, but mutual respect between players and staff undoubtedly is. When that goes out the window is when the trouble really starts. For all Pietersen’s defence of his actions and character, it is clear he had little time for some of his colleagues – in particular the head coach Andy Flower.
Successful teams are defined by a common purpose and goal, with a shared vision of how to get there. When a character like Pietersen starts to publicly question those around him, this unity is shattered.