Archive for the ‘ecb’ Category

Smells like team spirit

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

So farewell, then, England’s Test supremacy; farewell too, to Andrew Strauss, a man who, in his role as captain, took England to the top, and who enjoyed a fruitful opening partnership with successor Alastair Cook until everything began falling apart.

A decent, quietly dignified man, Strauss leaves the team ironically in the same state of turmoil it was in when he accepted the captaincy, but between then and now he, along with Andy Flower – the Steve Jobs to Strauss’s Tim Cook – made a team that proved greater than the sum of its parts through a vision that hinged upon keeping things simple. He deserves respect for his 7037 Test runs, the 24 matches won under his watch, the 3-1 Ashes series win and the first by an England side Down Under in 24 years. He deserves respect for his statesmanlike steering of the team through the rocky rapids of the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal, and, because he strikes me as an honest, plain-speaking bloke, I’m inclined to believe him when he says his decision to resign and retire from all forms of professional cricket had nothing to do with the recent ruckus surrounding England cricket’s current bête noire Kevin Pietersen.

Strauss’s successor, Alastair Cook, may not be the most inspirational of leaders, or of speakers, judging by Wednesday’s presser – “you have to throw yourself into it and meet the challenge head on – I hope I have it in me,” isn’t exactly the “we happy few, we band of brothers” stuff that fires the blood. But then, given he’s inherited a dressing room currently missing its best batsman, riddled, it would seem, with cliques and raging egos (and I’m not just talking about Pietersen’s), and a team on the receiving end of a comprehensive Test series beating, perhaps simply throwing oneself into it might be the best and simplest strategy. As Joe Cabot says in Reservoir Dogs, sometimes you just gotta shit your pants, dive in, and swim.

Strauss, not the most tactically imaginative captain, succeeded largely because he was utterly unflappable. On the field of play, this worked extremely well – there can be no greater contrast in terms of “game face” than Strauss’s arm-folded inscrutability at slip when a carefully laid plan resulted in a bowler being smashed for three consecutive boundaries, and Andrew Flintoff’s public, near nervous breakdown in the field at Adelaide in 2006.

Cook’s Bambi-eyed demeanour doesn’t quite inspire the same confidence, though. It’s not just the on-field stuff he has to control, it’s the dressing room environment as well, the “behind closed doors” nonsense we’ve unfortunately been hearing a lot about lately. The fact that Strauss said in a televised interview before Lord’s that the dressing room tension alluded to by Pietersen “has all been a bit of a surprise to me” is rather worrying. Plainly tensions did exist, as evidenced by the “KP Genius” Twitter account set up by a friend of Stuart Broad purely for the purpose of having a laugh at Pietersen’s expense. A parody account set up by a fan is one thing; an account set up by a friend of a team mate, likely with that team mate’s knowledge, makes a mockery of the “trust and mutual respect” demanded by the England management in response to queries regarding the timescale – or indeed any possibility – of Pietersen’s reinstatement.

Graeme Swann provided another example of hypocrisy at work; he was less than complimentary about Pietersen in his autobiography, but somehow, his book – released in a print run of thousands, available in paperback now, at a WH Smith’s near you – was deemed less damaging to team unity than private texts sent to a couple of mates during a moment of pissed-off indiscretion. Given Broad is already captain of the T20 side and Swann too, for all his jack-the-lad image, has captaincy ambitions (he led the side in the absence of Broad for three T20 matches against the West Indies and India last year) it’s all starting to suggest a pack struggle, a jostling for a higher rung on the dressing room hierarchy, the kind of playground unpleasantness that too often goes hand-in-hand with a group turning on one of its own. If Andrew Strauss was unaware of this, then Alastair Cook seems even less likely to be able to keep a lid on it.

The Pietersen problem is one that demands an urgent solution. Examining how the situation reached this state of urgency is instructive. How Pietersen’s very reasonable concerns over a congested international schedule degenerated via tweets and “derogatory texts” (since believed to be sent via Blackberry Messenger) into the current block-headed stalemate is an interesting study in tabloid media sensationalism, knee-jerk pettiness, mob behaviour, and group-think.

It has also demonstrated that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes accepted as truth. Take the infamous text messages, for example, reportedly sent to Pietersen’s friends in the South African team, reportedly “derogatory” towards Andrew Strauss and believed to contain encouragement to Dale Steyn to get him out, and later reported to contain advice on how to dismiss Andrew Strauss. Later, the tabloid that first broke the “exclusive” of these texts, admitted the messages contained no tactical information. Nevertheless, the damage has been done – the myth that these texts contained tactical information sent to the opposition persists on social media networks and “under the line” comments as sufficient reason for Pietersen’s permanent banishment. It has been an unsavoury, grubby saga of hearsay, leaks, innuendo and allegations, with precious little substance behind the hyperbole. Pietersen has since admitted sending texts, but the fact that it was not then – and still isn’t – known exactly what they contained while being cited in an ECB press release as a reason for his omission from the Lord’s Test is a quite staggering example of trial by tabloid in the absence of concrete proof.

As if this weren’t enough, we’ve been subjected to the deranged rantings of those such as Michael Henderson, who in a shrill, hectoring interview on BBC Radio, launched an unstoppable stream of bilious invective at Pietersen’s background, personality and motivation for playing for England. He referred to Pietersen’s replacement, Jonny Bairstow, as “a true Englishman” and justified his stance by saying it was one shared by those he spent time with while in the MCC President’s box – “no riff-raff”. Henderson has never considered Pietersen a “bona fide Englishman” and has grasped this controversy with relish, providing as it did another opportunity for him to air his xenophobic opinions. It was jaw-dropping, deeply offensive, and if you felt like having a hot shower and scrubbing yourself with a wire brush afterwards, you weren’t the only one.

Have we become so cynical that we accept that this is how the media can make or break a man’s career? Pietersen’s gaucheness may be to his disadvantage when it comes to his relationship with the media, but God help us all if a cricketer were ever to commit a truly heinous infraction such as murder or kidnapping – having already used up every known variation on words such as “vile”, “traitor”, “scandal” and “outrage” one tends to think a few of the sports commentariat have in this instance rather overreached themselves. But this, we are loftily assured, is how journalism works. It’s the way things are done. You’ll excuse me if I’ve had my faith in humanity, and my love for English cricket, dented slightly as a result.

Now, Pietersen is in the position where he is vilified if he says anything – no matter when he said it, or in what context – and castigated if he says nothing. That is how ridiculous it has become. He’s made a few mistakes, but isn’t it about time to get off the guy’s back and make a concerted effort to find a solution rather than letting it drag on?

From football-style tabloid sensationalism to the reinforcement of the stereotype that cricket is a game for public-school toffs who use servants as footstools and for whom the President’s box at Lord’s is the inner sanctum off-limits to those deemed “not one of us”, it’s fair to say the last few weeks have not been a shining advertisement for the sport.

Pietersen was due to sit down yesterday with Andy Flower in the first of a series of meetings that will, if pragmatism prevails, hammer out some kind of resolution that will allow the black sheep to return to the English fold. One hopes there will be compromise from both sides.

Kevin Pietersen may look back on this in time and know there were things he should have done differently. But he did not solely create this situation, or indeed the disunity within the team. He has only lifted the rock – or rather, kicked it over – and shown what is scurrying underneath.


Kevin Pietersen's future remains uncertain

Kevin Pietersen's future remains uncertain

Bridge down, troubled waters ahead for KP and ECB

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

On any other day, I’d be writing this article about Kevin Pietersen’s batting.

Speaking on Saturday evening, after his inspired 149 that lit up the Headingley gloom and breathed life into a generally moribund England innings (James Taylor’s assured debut and Matt Prior’s feisty 68 aside) Pietersen was asked where he saw himself in a year’s time. “I don’t know,” he said, “we’ll see.”

It was an interview described as cagey and evasive, but, perhaps unsurprisingly given his at-times uncomfortable relationship with the English media, he seemed to me like a man terrified of saying something that could be construed as boast or bluster.

He obviously didn’t have to wait long for that to happen anyway, as, after receiving his Man of the Match award on a final day that briefly promised excitement and unpredictability but fizzled into an unsatisfactory draw, he faced the media at the post-match press conference. For about seven minutes he was bombarded with questions regarding his future; he made it clear he didn’t want to discuss his ongoing negotiations with the ECB regarding renewal of his Test contract, but nevertheless the questions continued. If you’d ever wondered what cricket’s version of bear-baiting looks like, this was it.

At last, irritated, he obliged. “For me, the saddest part about all this is that the spectators just love watching me play and I love playing for England. But the politics is what I have to deal with personally and it’s tough being me in this dressing room. Playing for England is tough. We’ll see.”

It’s tough being me. You could almost visualise the smoke pouring from laptop keyboards. Who in the hell does Kevin Pietersen think he is?

Pietersen is a Marmite cricketer. He rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. I wrote about this back when the storm clouds began to gather. I’m not really sure why some people have a dislike for him that sometimes is so vehement it borders on the irrational. Perhaps their constant calling for him to be thrown out of the team would have some justification if he was a shit batsman. Everything aside from that – and that should be the main criterion – is down to management, or, in this case, bad management.

One thing I suspected at the time was that the details of Pietersen’s contract negotiations that appeared in the press were leaked strategically by “ECB sources” (to whom the details were attributed). Pietersen alluded angrily to this in yesterday’s press conference. “I was blamed before the Test series for grabbing the headlines. But did I leak anything? I never spoke to the media for one second. I never said anything about what was said behind closed doors.”

Behind closed doors is where you would reasonably expect negotiations between employer and employee to remain. But of course this isn’t the first time it has happened. Pietersen says he still doesn’t know who leaked details of his row with Peter Moores back in 2009 either. What all this boils down to is the manipulation of public opinion as a negotiating tool. Now I don’t know about you, but if my boss leaked selected details of a contract discussion, which, without the benefit of all the facts being known, might be calculated to paint me in a bad light, I’d be pretty damn pissed off too.

With this leak followed by a press conference that, it could be argued, was allowed to go on way too long, it’s starting to seem very much as though the ECB are not just intent on watching Pietersen dig his own grave, they’re even handing him the shovel.

One outcome is that, in common with many other national boards, the ECB may eventually become more flexible and accepting of the IPL and their players’ participation in it. Unfortunately, the way things now stand, with a headlong race towards a messy divorce now inevitable, it seems as though Pietersen’s career as an England player will be the price.

Can England do without KP? Inasmuch as they will have to, yes. Is sticking to principle more important than coming to some kind of compromise via a sensible, non-combative – and carried out in strict confidence – discussion with one of the greatest batsmen ever to take the field for this country? The future of England cricket depends on their answer. Given their now tenuous hold on the number one Test position, now is not the time to diminish this England team’s strength.

Know your place

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Kevin Pietersen announced yesterday that he is retiring from all international limited-overs cricket, with immediate effect.

At least, he has voluntarily retired from one format – ODIs – and been forced into retirement from T20s, due to an ECB contractual obligation that stipulates he be available for selection for both or neither.

A press release from the ECB states the following:

“The terms of the central contract state that any player making himself unavailable for either of the one-day formats automatically rules himself out of consideration for both formats of the game as planning for both formats is closely linked.

“This is designed to reflect the importance of one-day international cricket which is a strategic priority as England look for improved performances in the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy and the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup.”

Interestingly, the statement also includes this comment from Pietersen: “For the record, were the selection criteria not in place, I would have readily played for England in the upcoming World Twenty20.” Sky Sports News also reported that Pietersen’s management has expressed the desire for some compromise to be found, a way in which Pietersen could be given a “special contract” for the World T20, as he is very keen to take part in the tournament, which starts in September.

The ECB are unlikely to budge on this. The message they seem to be sending out is that you cannot pick and choose; that you cannot cut your England cloth to suit yourself.

I have several problems with this. I cannot escape the suspicion that this isn’t a stance taken purely from a position of principle, but that it also contains an element of the personal.

For one thing, the inflexibility of the ECB’s position seems at odds with the latitude afforded other players, notably Andrew Strauss – who could not only pick and choose his formats (retiring from T20s while still playing in ODIs) but also which Test series he played in, when he was rested from England’s tour of Bangladesh in 2010.

Similarly, the ECB’s comment on the “closely linked” nature of ODIs and T20s doesn’t really wash when you consider the different selections made for the two sides, including, in 2010, the use of “T20 specialist” Michael Lumb.

Pietersen has long had an uneasy relationship with the England management, ever since his falling out with Peter Moores. Yesterday’s announcement came at the end of a particularly eventful couple of weeks for KP. According to the ECB, Pietersen “discussed his position” with the board during the recent Test at Lord’s. On the Wednesday following the Test he attended a disciplinary meeting which resulted in a fine for his less-than-diplomatically expressed Twitter critique of Sky pundit Nick Knight’s commentary. The timing of all this, culminating in the retirement announcement, is interesting, and perhaps not insignificant. Pietersen has for a long time given the impression that ODIs are his least favourite format, and England will be playing 13 of them this year. Plainly something came to a head at some point. Whether the Twitter fine was a reaction designed to put him in his place – and an over-the-top reaction it was at that – for the audacity of daring to ask whether he could have some time off, or of picking and choosing, as the ECB would doubtless prefer to see it, is anyone’s guess.

One could easily dismiss this as a conspiracy theory. But where Pietersen is concerned, it seems conflict is never far away, and if Mooresgate was anything to go by, more details may yet emerge. While the timing is puzzling, given Pietersen’s spectacular return to limited-overs form lately, it’s hard to escape the feeling there’s more to come from this.

The reaction to Pietersen’s announcement has been interesting, and in many cases predictable. When it comes to his batting, few players put bums on seats quite like he does – and no one divides opinion quite like he does. But it doesn’t seem to have taken very much to bring some of the old prejudices back to the surface with knee-jerk rapidity. Mercenary, show pony, traitor. Selfish. Not a team man. Disruptive. Not English enough. If you’ve heard them all before you can bet they’ll all have been given another airing in the light of yesterday’s news. Michael Vaughan’s article in the Telegraph echoes the sentiments of more than a few when he says “my gut reaction was he should never play again and kick him out of the team”. This is a quite ridiculous statement, given Pietersen’s undoubted value to the England setup – something which Hugh Morris, when he said he was “disappointed” at Pietersen’s decision, makes clear enough.

It’s been pointed out that Pietersen would have known what he was agreeing to in terms of his central contract when he signed it. This is true. But given the fact that in most other walks of life, contracts and conditions of employment can be renegotiated due to life changes such as family, illness, or other unforeseen circumstances, one wonders why the same cannot apply to sport. The notion that anyone who plays for a national team should constitute a pliant, forelock-tugging workforce grateful simply to represent their country is outmoded and needs to change, and that can come only come through compromise, discussion and negotiation. Professionals stopped walking onto cricket fields through a separate gate years ago – flexibility needs to be a two-way street. It’s time cricket boards accepted the reality of today’s economic climate and faced the fact that sportsmen will occasionally make decisions based on something other than what is best for Team England.

And this is where we touch on what is really riling some commentators – the idea that Pietersen has made this decision to free himself up for lucrative T20 tournaments, such as Australia’s Big Bash league which takes place in January, during which England will be playing ODIs in India. To brazenly admit one’s intention to chase after filthy lucre is frowned upon; to not admit it, it seems, constitutes an even greater sin, that of avarice compounded by deviousness. We need to stop collectively clutching our pearls every time a player makes a decision that may partly be influenced by the financial. As Michael Holding has said, you cannot take national pride to the supermarket, and it’s not going to put food on your table. T20, with its frequently-reviled technique-ruining hit-and-giggle slogathons, its cheerleaders and its vacuous commentary, its big bucks and its naked commercialism, may not be to everyone’s taste. But it isn’t going away in the foreseeable future and cricket boards need to accept that, not bury their heads in the sand hoping it goes away, and scheduling series that force players into making a decision as to who to play for.

Given all of this, it is especially ironic that the Pietersen announcement should come at a time when all the talk lately has been of the impact of the IPL on West Indies cricket, of player attitudes, and the WICB’s inflexible and dictatorial response.

And look how well that approach has worked.

Split captaincy for short-of-options England

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Paul Collingwood is “very disappointed” at being stripped of the Twenty20 captaincy.

Stuart Broad, his replacement, has said, “It’s a huge privilege to be named England Twenty20 captain and form part of a leadership team that I’ve no doubt will work well together with a great deal of synergy,” craftily using management-speak pablum to repeat himself in the same sentence.

Alastair Cook, England’s new ODI captain, looked like a Chinese water deer in the sights of one of his own shotguns as he proffered some flannel about how his one-day form for Essex has improved even though he hasn’t been a part of England’s one-day side “for a while” – not since March 2010, to be exact.

One can understand Andrew Strauss relinquishing the One Day captaincy and retiring from this form of the game. He, along with Andy Flower, have been the prime movers in England’s recent Ashes success but both men have recognized the need to pace themselves. There is the suggestion that Flower, in extending his coaching contract with England, will be able to sit out selected tours, and Strauss, who will be 38 at the time of the next World Cup, understandably wishes to concentrate on Test cricket and the captaincy job he has performed so admirably.

The message today’s split-captaincy announcements seem to send out is that, with the Test team settled, the 2015 World Cup is now the next item on England’s agenda.

The only problem is, neither of these captaincy appointments is ideal and smack of a makeshift approach because of a lack of other options.

Cook’s form in Test cricket is unquestioned. But for a man who has played only 3 ODIs in the last two and a half years to not only be shoehorned into the team but also given the captaincy sounds like desperation. It suggests that since Cook is Test captain-in-waiting he was the only option.

He may very well turn out to be effective in the opening position Strauss has now vacated – I doubt he will perform any worse than Matt Prior did – but leading the team to victory in one series against Bangladesh hardly suggests a CV with any great depth in the captaincy department.

I have bigger problems with Stuart Broad as England’s new Twenty20 captain.

Cook may have captained England in five matches already; Broad does not even have that.

At the start of today’s press conference, England managing director Hugh Morris referred to Broad’s “leadership credentials”. What those are, exactly, remains unexplained. Broad, while being of undeniable value to an England team in terms of his bowling, will hardly be of much use to his country if he is watching from the sidelines because he has clashed heads with officialdom.

Broad, while earning plaudits for his bowling and batting in the series against Pakistan last year, won himself rather fewer fans with his on-field behaviour, and there were many, myself included, who believed the penalty levied against him for petulantly hurling the ball at Zulqarnain Haider should have been considerably stiffer.

Broad says he has “learned from that” and wants to “set a good example and play the game in the right way,” but I am yet to be convinced.

I’m always wary when it comes to setting up sportsmen as paragons of what examples to the young should be, but it’s the idea that the England management have confused petulance with competitiveness – and worse, leadership potential – that worries me.

Personally, I’d like to have seen Kevin Pietersen given another shot at captaincy – in either format – but despite what KP might say regarding being in large part responsible for England’s renaissance after the removal of Peter Moores (and I’d be inclined to agree with him), the fact that Andy Flower was also in his sights no doubt remains a black mark against him.

So now, England will take on this summer’s visitors Sri Lanka and India with two inexperienced captains, a new ODI opening partnership and a bowler-captain who is rightly praised for his ability to take wickets but not for his maturity or anything that would suggest statesmanship or tactical nous.

This has been brought about because the England management have decided there are no other options: hardly a ringing endorsement for the two new incumbents.

Andy Flower has admitted the appointment of three captains is a gamble – “over the next few years we will see if that works or not,” and referred to it as “the most effective use of our resources”.

Such as they are.

Ban boot camps

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Shane Warne has a complete hatred of them, the ECB seem to think they’re a brilliant idea, and I suspect I’m not the only one who can’t see the bloody point of them.

I’m talking about the boot camps the England team are now customarily sent on prior to the Ashes. In 2009 it was strategy and tactics meetings preceded by a trip to Flanders Field.

This year, it was rock-climbing, sleeping in tents, abseiling off cliffs, and a visit to Dachau concentration camp.

It’s like company paintball, but with added genocide.

The most immediate, and potentially most damaging consequence, as far as England’s Ashes hopes go, is that during this “bonding exercise”, Jimmy Anderson suffered a cracked rib in a boxing session with Chris Tremlett. Quite what the leader of England’s bowling attack was doing in the ring with 6ft 7 in, potential Ashes-lineup hopeful Tremlett, is anyone’s guess. I’d love to know who thought this was a good idea.

The ECB have assured us Jimmy should be fit in time for Brisbane. But let’s be honest, if he’d broken a bone while boxing in his own time, the wrath of the ECB would have fallen with considerable weight upon him and the poor bastard would never have heard the end of it. It’s for the same reason that it’s not uncommon for people who drive a Formula 1 car or ride a MotoGP bike to have a clause in their contract that forbids them from skiing off mountains and the like.

As far as the visit to Dachau goes: I can appreciate the intent behind it, to open up the eyes of cricketers to a wider world and wider issues beyond their own immediate, cocooned existence.

But there’s something about a bunch of sportsmen visiting the site where thousands of people died as a “team bonding” exercise that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. While the combat element of sport is normal, healthy, and exhilarating – it is what makes victory all the sweeter – there’s a far cry between that and facing a World War One sniper or death in an extermination camp. It is not literally a war our boys are going into, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone will die.

True, this is not the first time cricket teams have visited war sites – Gallipoli has been a popular destination for Australian teams en route to England, but the fact it is now tied in with the cod-science arse-whackery of sports psychology with all its attendant bullshit terms of “insight” “leadership” and “making difficult decisions under pressure” is what makes it a bit fucking much.

So the next time England’s security guru Reg Dickason is burning up his keyboard googling “human disaster areas” in preparation for the next Ashes “boot camp” he’d be better off following Warne’s advice of locking everyone up in the boozer and letting them get on with it.

At the very least, Jimmy Anderson’s ribs will thank him.