KP; ECB; WTF?

It is hard to know where to start discussing the shots that have been fired by Kevin Pietersen and the ECB over the past five days.  Accusations of a bullying dressing room, Andy Flower acting like a petulant school teacher, the board being, well, pretty hopeless (if not outwardly vindictive and lying) and of individuals within the team who lied to Pietersen and betrayed him by writing a parody Twitter account.  In fact, if you read the press generated by KP’s book, you would be forgiven for thinking that English cricket over the last five years has been nothing but disastrous.  Impassioned fans and bloggers have picked through the ECB’s leaked document and the KP evidence to demonstrate that their theories have largely been right.  Even Jonathan Agnew has left Twitter after Jessica from Liberty X (also Mrs Pietersen) accused him of lying.  Quite a week, then.

I like to think that I take quite a balanced view on this, and I would like to examine events from the last five years alongside the information that has now been released by Pietersen.  Undoubtedly, life in the England cricket team has been a little less rosy than we have been led to believe.  But, also, I would vehemently disagree with anybody who considers Andy Flower’s time as head coach to have been a bad thing for English cricket.

Eras, ended.

Whenever a regime ends, the ramifications are violent.  Frequently, what has been considered a weakness of a coach (or, more generally, the regime) grows larger and larger, seeming to overpower the strengths of the regime.  Let’s turn our thoughts back to 2007.  England were beaten 5-0 by Australia and went on to perform in a very disappointing manner at the World Cup.  Fletcher’s weaknesses: under-preparation in the tour games (he instigated 13-per-side tour warm-up matches), a favouritism to certain players who were guaranteed their places no matter what (Geriant Jones, Ashley Giles to name but two), a preference for a certain type of cricketer (express pace bowlers over all others, for example) and a distrust of selections from county cricket.  All legitimate concerns over Fletcher’s reign.  All became pressing issues in Australia in 2006-7, when the team started losing.  But, it wasn’t just that the team were losing – it seemed that the team were weakened by these flaws.  The consensus was clear – Fletcher had ‘lost it’ through being given too much power, and the time was right to move things on, appoint a new coach and take a new approach.

Now, of course, history shows a slightly less dogmatic view.  England were highly unlucky with injuries, with the loss of support staff and the loss of form from key players.  Plus, of course, this Australia team was one of the great teams.  England at their best would have struggled to win the series, though they would have challenged harder, no doubt.  Was it the right time for Fletcher to move on?  Maybe – he had done 8 years on the job, after all, but it is now widely agreed that a staggered hand-over to his successor would have been better.

My point in writing the above is that test cricket is perhaps a unique sport, especially when on a test match tour – when a dressing room implodes, it really implodes.  And English cricket’s implosions seem to coincide with tours to Australia: 1994-5, 2002-3, 2006-7, 2013-14.

In a month’s time, a year’s time, a decade’s time, when the emotions have cooled it will be far easier to place Flower’s era in context.  What has struck me is that the good times have been largely forgotten – rewind three or four years and Flower was being hailed as a genius and it was almost impossible to imagine the implosion that has occurred over the last twelve months.

The worst of times

We must begin this examination by looking back to 2009 – a key start-point for everybody examining this relationship, as it is thought that this is when Flower began his dislike for Pietersen after KP tried to remove him (alongside Peter Moores).  That may well be true.  This was another English cricket ‘crisis’ – a new captain who had only captained for three test matches was not able to click with a coach who, frankly, was not international class and acted in an inappropriate manner with the senior players.  Generally, 2008 was a terrible year for the ECB.  What with Michael Vaughan and Paul Collingwood both resigning because they could no longer work with Moores, the grubby Allan Stanford affair and the ECB’s fitness coach being jailed for child pornography offences.  Everywhere you looked, the ECB were generally getting things wrong and cocking things up.  Neither were events on the field any better.  The events of January 2009 was the apex of this period of English cricket – it might even be suggested that the batting collapse that occurred in Jamaica in February 2009 was the final scene within this act of history.  For it was that West Indies series in which the Flower/Strauss regime started to take hold.

“The team is not a hire car”

The main point that I want to bring out is that between 2009 and 2011 Flower and Strauss could do, it seemed, almost no wrong.  The team began to take shape, key man-management decisions were made effectively (such as the treatment of Ian Bell on that tour and the sensible discarding of Stephen Harmison after the 2009 Ashes) and the team ethic began to take hold.  Performances were not immediately outstanding (a lost series away to the West Indies, and a hardly convincing performance in the 2009 Ashes although the team most certainly had their moments as they went on to win the series), but the signs were promising.  More to the point, the narrative portrayed by the press in 2011 was that it was this team ethic that had been missing in a listless 18 months (during Peter Moores’ reign) and was now being fixed by Flower/Strauss.  “The team is not a hire car” and all that.

As test match series continued to unfold, the team grew more and more established – the ‘brand’ of cricket was secure, the key players knew their roles and results were pleasing.  We can look back to the South Africa tour of 2009/10 as a key time for the growth of this team, as we can the summer of 2010 when there were difficult political circumstances for Strauss to deal with following the News of the World match fixing sting.  The result was that when the 2010/11 Ashes came around, this was a well-drilled team and one that utterly deserved to win that series in the convincing manner that it did so.  The 2011 summer, in which England became the number 1 team in the world, saw this halcyon period continue.

It is interesting to look back at what was being written about the team environment (and the ECB) at this point in time.  There was a lot of credit given to the attritional brand of cricket being played – batsman scoring ‘daddy’ hundreds and bowlers grinding it out in the field, along with a no-nonsense approach to fielding, driven by Matt Prior, the ‘fielding captain’.  The ECB were credited with their use of back room staff, the use of statistics and video analysis, the fact that they had established a Lions set-up that in many ways bypassed the county system – Loughborough came into its own.

If this was an unhappy dressing room, then I would be incredibly surprised.  Bullying on the field?  Players failing to relate to one another?  Flower creating divisions?  If that was the case, then the players would not have achieved the outstanding success that they did in the twelve months between October 2010 and 2011, and they, frankly, looked like they were having a pretty enjoyable time, too.  Just watch Swanny’s Video Diaries for proof.  Yes, Pietersen was never quite integral to this team dynamic, but he was no outsider – he featured in the Video Diaries (being gently teased for his footballing allegiance by Paul Collingwood), he mucked in with the sprinkler dance at Melbourne and embraced all the other players once the series had been won.  He was a crucial performer within that period – and you felt that this was recognised and respected by the dressing room.  It should also be noted that in this period KP gave several interviews that were praising of Flower.  Doing what he had to as an ECB employee? Perhaps – but he has never been shy to give his opinion since, even when under contract.

So, it is the autumn of 2011 – England are number one in the world, and the players have a six-month break from cricket.  What could possibly go wrong?

Jumping the shark?

As it turned out, everything.

In my view, all the negative outpouring of the last few days can be traced back to this point.  Did the dressing room environment become too cocky, too certain of the ways of the team?  Were the negative traits of England’s brand of cricket magnified and the positives left behind?  Did England fail to evolve in an act of complacency?  Quite possibly all of these things.  This was certainly the time that KP felt estranged from the rest of the team.  Enough has been written about KP Genius and text-gate by many people over the last week.  But it was these actions of the 2012 dressing room that led to Pietersen’s eventual downfall – of that we all agree.

How much of that is attributable to Andy Flower?  Or the senior players; the clique, as they have become known?  Results on the pitch began to take a downward turn – the old problem of playing against spin brought 90s-style batting collapses in Dubai as England crumbled against Pakistan.  Whilst England did beat West Indies at home in the first half of the 2012 summer, the performances were not as convincing as they might have been – just ask Tino Best.  Then, when South Africa arrived for the series that had been billed as the play-off to the number one spot in test match cricket, England failed to show.  South Africa were superior in almost every sense, and they won the series with ease.

And this is where the dressing room also began to fall apart.  @KPGenius, text-gate, Strauss’ resignation.  Did this come about because of the poor on-pitch results, or did they trigger them.  The truth, probably, is that there was a bit of both.  England came to think that their way of playing cricket, of behaving as a team, was successful – but it evolved in completely the wrong manner.  In some ways, comparison with the team post-2005 Ashes would be accurate.  Although, in that case there were more mitigating circumstances, especially the injuries to key players.  This was more of the case that the team as a whole, the regime took an incorrect turning.  The England Cricket Team – Flower and Strauss’ cricket team – jumped the shark.

Just as well that the Olympics rather overshadowed a very disappointing international summer.

The question was whether England could turn this around, that the dressing room could evolve in a more successful manner and create a new brand of cricket, under captain Cook.

Re-integration (or just papering over the cracks?)

It all started so well.  Cook and Flower agreed to bring back KP, England took an impressive series win in India in late-2012 and the team spirit appeared to have returned in spades.  But winning can paper over cracks, and whilst England won all appeared rosy.  Yet, within months things were beginning to fall apart.  Shaky performances in New Zealand led to an ill-tempered start to the summer, when England were accused of playing in a negative manner in the second test match against New Zealand.  Flower reacted violently to questioning from both Mike Atherton and Jonathan Agnew in post-match interviews (for Sky Sports and the BBC respectively).  There was rumour that mention of the word “Ashes” was banned in the dressing-room.  England were still not playing particularly well (although, results were still – just! – going their way).  A better-than-deserved Champions Trophy showing and the fact that the Australia team were in even more disarray allayed this negativity for a number of months.  But, by August 2013, it was clear that all was not well in the England ship.  The, frankly, ludicrous and demeaning selections for the Oval test match showed that England had lost the plot.  The brand of cricket was getting more and more negative, England were becoming more and more unpopular for their on-field conduct and the results were starting to turn (remember the home Ashes series results of W-W-D-W-D).  It all seems obvious now, but when England flew to Australia, they had it coming.

But again, whose fault was this?  I would argue that each coaching regime has a peak before the results and culture inevitably falls around it.  The peak of this regime was undoubtedly 2010-11, and the fall took place from 2012 right through until the beginning of this year.  Only a honeymoon series for Alastair Cook and the fortune of home conditions and a poorly run Australian side disguised this.  And thus, when KP reflects upon the poor culture of the England team and his unhappiness in the dressing room, I would hope that he is referring mainly to 2012 onwards.  For me, the start of the Flower-Strauss axis brought a great time for English cricket, and I would be distraught for this to be tarnished.  Perhaps some of the dressing-room arrogance and inter-team politics began then and, again, winning papered over those cracks.  There are signs of English arrogance, such as Flower’s trip to the Indian dressing room during the tea interval during ‘Bell-gate’.  These features of the dressing room only worsened over time, with the positives diminishing.  And then, when England finally ran out of luck and the floodgates opened in Australia last winter the fallout began in earnest.

I am no fan of the ECB – I have a deep dislike of the manner in which Giles Clarke runs the game.  But I would support the 2009-11 England team regime to the hilt – after all, this was a side that gave me a lot of pleasure as a fan through the manner in which they played their cricket and the results that they gleaned.  One can only hope, looking back to 2007, that another successful era comes around just as quickly as Fletcher turned to Flower.  English cricket has been very fortunate in recent years – we must not forget that.  Will KP return?  In all likelihood, no.  Can England turn a corner and begin to play less ugly brand of cricket and become a better organisation again?  I certainly hope so.  And I hope that all this infighting ceases soon as it does nobody any good.

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