Saturday, July 25, 2009

No Way A Flop, But Not Quite A Top

"Who is England's best player?"

Few people even think of another answer. Maybe they'd have picked Freddie Flintoff in 2005. In the last 9 months, Graeme Swann's become a crucial team member. Andrew Strauss has taken on the captain's role superbly. Paul Collingwood's a fighter who'll never give up.
But no.
The answer's always Kevin Pietersen.

True, on his day, he's spectacular.He can play shots all around the park, he scores quickly, and strikes anything from trepidation to terror in the hearts of oncoming bowlers. He's exciting to watch, and you know you could be about to see something special.
On the other hand, there are the bad times. Look at the short and troubled captaincy, the undoubted ego, and, arguably, a lack of team play at times.
He's scored 15 test centuries, and close on 4,000 runs, at an average of just below 50. No one can argue with those figures.
So what's the problem?

Pietersen's scores seem to have declined almost without anyone noticing. True, he had a century in the West Indies in March, and a couple of semi-tons since then, but he also seems more prone to the single-figure dismissals than the other great batsmen. Everyone has their bad days, but with Pietersen it seems to be either very good or very bad.
More frustrating than his recent lack of converting good scores into 100s is the manner of his dismissals.
Remember his 97 in the first test in the Caribbean this year? 97 not out, doing plenty to help set up a strong first innings total. However, a century wouldn't have been enough, apparently; it had to be reached in style. A six may have been what he had in mind, but a massive top edge to Denesh Ramdin later and England were another wicket down. In Cardiff this year, we saw a similarly rash stroke.
Is it understandable, just a rush of blood to the head? Maybe, for a 20-year old on debut, looking to impress the world. Pietersen did that years ago. This is a former captain, a man with 46 test matches to his name, and allegedly his country's greatest player.
Look at the other top batsmen playing today - Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakarra, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, Shiv Chanderpaul - that's not an act you'd see from them. A great player knows when to wait, and knows when to pounce.
Having happened on more than one occasion, it shows KP for what he is - a player's who's more concerned with serving himself than the team.

Lee Trevino, golfing legend of the 1970s, and 6-time major winner, famously remarked to his caddy on the 18th fairway of his first major victory that he didn't want to be known as the guy who laid up to win. Only needing a bogey, he took on thew water and the green. All ended happily, but what if? We could have had another Jean Van de Velde.

In the West Indies, on his way to his 15th test match ton, with England on the brink of a crucial declaration, Pietersen was keeping his eyes firmly away from the dressing room. Strauss was going to have to drag him off the field, and let's remember, Straussy was only recently put in the awkward position of leading a team that had just given KP a vote of no confidence.
He made his hundred. Congratulations. England then declared, and failed to bowl the West Indies out again, leading to another draw.

Look at other captains, other batsmen. Maybe Ricky Ponting isn't too popular outside Oz, but no one can deny that he puts the team first. A master of the tight declaration, always judged to give a chance of victory, even if it brings with it a risk of defeat, Ponting would be prepared to declare on 98 not out, rather than waste precious minutes to boost his own stats.

Pietersen is never going to be dropped. He's achieved hero status, and the English are slow to take such a man off a pedestal, even without his sort of talent (just ask Tim Henman).
However, there are younger players, the future of English cricket, who need some air time. Alistair Cook and Ravi Bopara, to name but two, both hugely talented and still young men, need to be given the help to become the game's greats.

Consider the best batsmen of the last 10 years: Lara, Waugh, Kallis, Ponting, Jayasuriya, Tendulkar. It's not all about physical skill. It's about class, calm, strategy, and selflessness. Pietersen doesn't make it on to that tier. Not yet.

Let's see how England do in the Ashes without the big man. If Strauss gets to lift the urn on August 24th, maybe there'll be a few new heroes

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