London – It was when Kevin Pietersen’s behaviour left Alastair Cook at the end of his tether during the final Test in Sydney that it became clear the time had come, at last, for a humiliated and chastened England to move on without him.
Never mind that this hugely gifted, high-maintenance enigma had fallen out once and for all with Andy Flower, who had done his utmost to manage him since taking over from Peter Moores, the coach Pietersen had ousted. Once the captain’s patience had been exhausted by Pietersen’s perceived poor influence on the younger members of the England dressing room and a bad attitude towards the team environment, the writing was on the wall.
There was time for more twists to an extraordinary tale when Flower resigned in the aftermath of the worst Ashes tour in England’s history and Cook’s power was weakened by the escalation of the misery in Australia. Yet Paul Downton, who could not have known what he had let himself in for when he agreed to succeed Hugh Morris as managing director of England cricket, never doubted what had to be done for what was described in the ECB statement on Tuesday night as the need “not only to rebuild the team but the team ethic and philosophy”.
Sadly, that is the closest England came to explaining the real reasons behind the decision to sack their best batsman, and clearly lawyers and the details of Pietersen’s settlement had an influence on the wording of a bland statement that left more questions than answers. Yet the bottom line is that KP has fallen out with those in power wherever he has gone, and, approaching his 34th birthday and with his talents on the wane, the circle is complete with his exile from the highest level. There was no way he could survive the perception that he had been at least partly responsible for the demise of a second coach in Flower, not to mention former captain Andrew Strauss after the texting scandal of 2012.
“Your past catches up with you eventually,” a leading figure in this sorry saga told Daily Mail once it became clear that Tuesday’s crisis talks between Downton, Cook and Ashley Giles had reached the “unanimous” decision to sever links with Pietersen. The genesis of this somehow inevitable parting of the ways came in the fall-out from England’s loss to South Africa two years ago when Cook went against Flower’s better judgment in welcoming Pietersen back despite his “provocative” messages about Strauss.
At first KP’s “reintegration” appeared to be going well with a sublime, world-class century in Mumbai that helped England towards an historic Test series victory in India last winter. But old habits clearly die hard with Pietersen and by the time that he showed his utter contempt for warm-up matches by barely trying during England’s final game ahead of the first Ashes Test, the murmurings that all was not well in the England camp resurfaced again.
The brainless manner of so many of his dismissals in the Ashes showed that, with his body feeling the strain of nine years at the top, he could not get away with simply assuming that “it will be all right on the night” in Tests. He may have been England’s top scorer in their harrowing Ashes series, but in truth that was an empty honour and a tally of 294 runs was simply not good enough for such a key performer. And along the way Flower decided on restraint when he contemplated disciplinary action against his star man.
Still, a decision of this magnitude would not have been taken lightly, not with England in such desperate need of results. It is quite a stance, for instance, from one-day coach Giles, one of Pietersen’s closest friends in the England team of 2005, to support this move when he desperately needs good results in West Indies and Bangladesh to enhance his claim to succeed Flower as team director. Giles, along with Cook, Downton and new national selector James Whitaker, has seen the bigger picture and he should be commended for that.
Flower warned after the 5-0 that there would be more painful times ahead before England get better and it is to be hoped that supporters will look beyond the brilliance of Pietersen that was becoming more occasional and look to the next generation now. Patience will be needed over the next 12 months and Cook deserves the right to build his own team, especially as he will be on trial following the exposure of his tactical shortcomings in Australia. Cook needs to live or die as captain with those he truly wants by his side.
It is difficult to gauge how history will judge Pietersen. At his best he was a unique, thrilling talent and it has been my privilege to have been present for the majority of his 23 Test hundreds. It is possible to consider Tuesday a sad day while also believing the news is very much in the best interests of England. But ultimately he will be remembered more for the fall-outs, the many controversies that have been part of the package with this flawed “genius”, and that is a great shame.
Pietersen is one of England’s best ever batsmen but not everybody can be wrong about his character – from KwaZulu Natal, to Cannock, to Nottinghamshire, Hampshire and now, finally and irretrievably, England. It was always going to end in tears with Pietersen.
That day, with England looking to start from scratch at their lowest ebb, has finally come.