Hello again! (And thoughts for the first Test)

Looking at the most recent post (before this) two things stand out: first is that it begins with an apology for not writing and the second is that it is eleven months old. So apologies again. In my defence, I spent those elven months first moving house, then starting grad school and preparing to do research in astrophysics. It has been a touch busy. And there is nothing to really suggest that it will get markedly better, but we’ll see how things play out. I did actually watch sport over the winter though and have some thoughts on the winter of discontent going into the international summer.

First off is that England probably made the right choice as far as a new head coach goes. It would have been better if Andy Flower had not left, but having done so it was down to Mike Newell or Peter Moores for me. I was hoping Newell so that Moores would stay at Lancashire, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will do an excellent job. This of course ties into the big story over the winter of Kevin Pietersen. I don’t want to drag that up again too much; I made my feelings very clearly known on Twitter and I’ll only go into detail if his fanboys find some fresh stupidity.

The biggest issue going into the summer is the uncertainty regarding the actual positions. There is one spot at the top of the order free, two in the middle order (assuming that Ben Stokes plays at six in the long-term even if he is not fit for the first Test), the spinner’s role and the third seamer all up for grabs. I am not including the wicket-keeper as vacant because I do not at all think that Matt Prior was dropped for anything other than an experiment; if he is fit he will keep wicket for the first Test.

The opener’s spot is probably the most straightforward: it should go to Sam Robson. He had an excellent year last year, has started well this year and has stated an ambition to bat for England. Give him a shot. The only other option would be Nick Compton and whilst I do think he was harshly dropped he has not done as much as Robson since then. He would be the reserve choice, however.

For the middle order, Joe Root is the incumbent in one of the spots and probably will get another go at five. If he is picked, hopefully he stays there most or all of the summer; he has not had enough time to settle in to any one spot properly and that cannot have helped him. At the same time, however, he did struggle for much of last year and cannot be said to have nailed his spot down. It is mostly due to his potential that he still seems to be a fixture in the side. The other spot is more open. Gary Ballance is technically the man in possession, but as with the wicket-keeper’s spot above I am very reluctant to take the selection late in the winter too seriously. However, he earned his callup with an excellent 2013 and he has started this year well. The same is true of Moeen Ali, however, and his weight of runs has certainly pushed him into the frame. Those are the most likely options but James Taylor, after being so harshly discarded in 2012, has batted well both for Nottinghamshire and the Lions and Jonny Bairstow is technically in the current XI. I don’t see either as particularly likely candidates though. I actually would prefer to see both Ballance and Ali bat in the middle order; I think they have both done more to get the spots than Root has. If Stokes is not fit then I would have Root at six, but otherwise I would let him bat with Yorkshire for at least the series against Sri Lanka.

For Graeme Swann’s replacement, it seems like every spinner in the country has been mentioned at least once. The realistic candidates are Scott Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, James Tredwell and Monty Panesar. I am biased, of course, but for me it has to be Kerrigan. He only bowled a handful of overs in his previous Test and simply cannot be judged on that. More importantly, none of the other candidates have come close to matching his first-class record over the past few seasons. Kerrigan is, without question, the best spinner in the County Championship and that has to make him the front runner for the vacant England role.

There is one way Kerrigan could reasonably be left out of the first Test against Sri Lanka, however, and that is if England field an all-seam attack and there is a decent argument for doing so. Steve Finn, Graham Onions, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan all have cases, but this is possibly the oddest of any of the contest for a place. Just judging on first-class form Finn and Onions have to be the front runners and I think they probably are. But Finn’s mechanics were apparently completely hopeless in Australia and he fell well out of favour. Meantime, Onions did everything anyone could have asked last summer and never seemed to even be considered. Bresnan looks a shadow of his former self and although Jordan looked excellent last year it was the first time he has done so.

This adds up to Bresnan probably being the longest shot; I’d like to see him bowl for Yorkshire and maybe fight his way back into the reckoning, and I think he could be quite good again, but right now he looks a long way from Test quality. There is not a lot to pick between the other three, however, which is why I think picking an all-seam attack against Sri Lanka may be the way to go. Finn and Jordan are probably the best two choices; they are similar styles of bowler and it is a style which probably fits best behind Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. In the longer term, however, I would like to see England be more willing to go ‘horses-for-courses’; if a pitch calls will suit the swing bowlers more then play another one in Onions. If more pace is needed, then supplement the attack with Finn or Jordan.

At least right now (and it is still a month until the first Test, so this may change) my XI for Lord’s would be:
Alastair Cook*
Sam Robson
Ian Bell
Moeen Ali
Gary Ballance
Ben Stokes
Matt Prior†
Stuart Broad
Chris Jordan
Steve Finn
Jimmy Anderson

Time for KP to go?

Kevin Pietersen’s feud with the ECB had been subtly simmering in the lead up to the Headingley Test and when he made 149 and took four wickets one expects it was on everyone’s mind at some level. But if not Pietersen quickly dragged it to the forefront with a press conference where, after refusing to wait for his captain, he stated that Lord’s may be his last Test. He has since added fuel to the fire by suggesting that one of his teammates is behind a Twitter parody of him. Regardless of the accuracy or otherwise of that accusation (and it is ‘otherwise’) matters between Pietersen and the ECB certainly seem to be coming to a head and there is now the possibility that Lord’s won’t be his last Test, but that Headingley already was.

A lot has been made in the media and elsewhere about what the ECB ought to do. There are many suggesting that the ECB need to compromise with Pietersen, stating that having him leave the England team benefits no-one. That is all disputable and I will come back to it later, but what is clear is that the ECB have not handled the situation terribly well. I wrote some time ago why I thought they ought to have been more flexible about letting Pietersen retire from only ODIs. Since then there has been the revelation about KP wanting to miss Tests to play in the IPL that was leaked to the media. But the interesting thing is that it was leaked. Pietersen never said anything publicly and there is a reasonable suggestion that it was leaked in a (successful) attempt to discredit him. There is a strong suggestion that the ECB higher-ups are not merely not interested in compromise but are actively waging a PR war against Pietersen. Independent of anything else, this is simply not right and should stop immediately.

But Pietersen is far from blameless. His stated need to spend more time with his family and his desire to play a full season of the IPL (and now an interest in the Big Bash League as well) are mutually exclusive unless he meant that he has a second family in Dehli with whom he wants to spend more time. He claims that money is not his motivation and I do actually believe that, at least to an extent. But his motivations do not seem to be what he says they are either; it does not add up. He claims that there are ‘many issues’ to be addressed and it seems a fair bet that most of them revolve around Pietersen and his ego. The fact that he not only talked about how much the spectators want to see him play (so he wants to deny them that when it is inconvenient for him, apparently) and how it is hard to be him are telling. Part of the captaincy saga at the end of 2008 was that he wanted Andy Flower, then Peter Moores assistant, out as well. There is every chance that he is still unhappy over his failure.

I think in the end that the ECB need to take a hard stance with Pietersen. The argument that most employers would find a compromise for such an important performer does not hold weight for me. Not only is the spectator environment of a cricket team inherently unlike any other work environment, how many organisations of any type would respond positively to a request to miss two big meetings in order to do a bit of work for a high paying competitor? For all the faults of the ECB, Pietersen is being inherently unreasonable. I have never heard anyone who suggests that the ECB compromise with Pietersen actually suggest what sort of compromise could be reached; the implication often seems to be that the ECB should not compromise but cave into Pietersen’s demands. If his primary demand is to only retire from ODIs then something could probably be negotiated, but by definition Pietersen would have to make concessions as well. There can be no compromise on the issue of playing the whole IPL, in both the figurative sense that the ECB will (rightly) not budge and in the literal sense that there is no middle ground to be had. Either he plays in the whole tournament as he wants or, as is the case now, he plays in only part of it; there is no halfway between them. And as for the other issues, it is impossible to know if any compromise on them could be reached without knowing what they are. It is hard to imagine much that could be given to him without it being unfairly special treatment though. And once again, the nature of compromise would demand that KP budge from his position as well. It’s all well and good to say that the ECB should negotiate with him, but it is not that simple.

There is also the issue of team unity to be considered. Pietersen’s belief that one of his teammates is behind the Twitter parody of him is insane and paranoid on the face of it, there were Tweets sent whilst all of his teammates and the rather solid alibi of being in the field amongst other things, but it does show that there are dressing room problems. Pietersen also hinted at some in the press conference on Monday. If his teammates already dislike him, that is all the more reason for the ECB not to give him special treatment. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is a good reason for the ECB not to compromise with him at all. Dressing room unity is important and it is something at which Strauss and Flower have worked hard in the wake of the captaincy saga. But Pietersen has never really been able to fit in properly. He left Natal in a huff for England and he left Nottinghamshire by having his kit thrown off the balcony. His brief time as England captain was marked mostly by suggestions of dressing room cliques and he left Hampshire under a bit of a cloud as well. The attitude that he showed to his captain in his press conference was simply unacceptable. The other members of England’s dressing room do not seem to have any problem fitting in despite being a rather diverse bunch, so this problem seems to stem entirely from Pietersen. There is an easy solution to it.

I would not play Pietersen at Lord’s. I would not give him a swan song; I would not give him one last chance to impress. What started as a reasonable argument about workload has descended into irrationality, egotism and paranoia. There is no reason for the ECB to bend over to make accommodations for a player who only deigns to perform a few times a year and who is a disruptive influence on the dressing room throughout. No player, however good, is irreplaceable and no player is bigger than the team. If Pietersen cannot comprehend that then he must go and go immediately.