Kevin Pietersen will be travelling to India, and not merely to sit and as occasion demands dance in a television studio. That he will actually be out in the middle carrying England’s batting on his shoulders once again is good news for Indian fans, Indian administrators, television audiences everywhere, and perhaps even Indian bowlers. Indian cricket might be at a low ebb, and victory over England whatever the strength of the opposition might be welcomed with greater fanfare than usual, but should that happen there will always be something deeply unsatisfying. Even if the Indian team itself is in the process of rebuilding.
Half a century ago, the Indian team team led by Nari Contractor and rebuilding after a 5-0 thumping in England and a miserable series of five draws against Pakistan, was in the process of rebuilding too. England arrived without their best batsman, Colin Cowdrey and their two best bowlers, Fred Trueman and Brian Statham. India blooded some long-serving players: Tiger Pataudi, Farokh Engineer, Erapalli Prasanna, Dilip Sardesai. Continue reading below
India won the series 2-0, but the itinerary was strange – just as it will be this year when a short series between India and Pakistan is likely to squeezed into the middle of the longer series. In 1961-62, England played a Test match in Pakistan in October, came over to India and completed a full series and then returned to Pakistan to play the final two Tests there in January-February.
Those were days when England usually sent their second teams; now everyone wants to come to India. Pietersen himself has said he was happier playing for Delhi Daredevils than England.
That came during a period when his tweets about team-mates landed him in trouble; that the England and Wales Cricket Board has been able to look beyond those childish games, and accepted the players’ apology at face value speaks of maturity that other boards will do well to learn from. The cliche is that the game is greater than its greatest player, but too often that has been corrupted to “the administrator is greater than the greatest player.”
Pietersen needed to be reprimanded for being a destructive influence, but the ECB nearly cut off its nose to spite the face. It might be premature to say that all is well now – it will be interesting to see how his team-mates respond to Pietersen.
When nearly two dozen men with different temperaments spend days and weeks together in a foreign land and in the glare of the media, normalcy is the exception, not the rule. Cricket tours have stressed out teams with the most mature of men without any ego problems, so some of the focus on the tour will be on the Pietersen-versus-the-rest drama.
Mavericks have always existed, ego problems have deprived teams of their top players, and the players themselves, pumped up by self-importance and their batting or bowling averages have often placed their interests above those of the team.
Geoff Boycott was sent back from a tour of India in the 1980s; Navjot Sidhu decided that he had had enough of a tour of England in the 90s and took a unilateral decision to return home.
Cricket boards, conscious both of the bottom line and the team’s image have sometimes made decisions that appear stunningly wrong or undeniably right depending on which side of the fence you look from. Still, the resurrection of players like Pietersen and Chris Gayle of the West Indies has meant that some boards have seen the bigger picture, even if in the latter case it took the intervention of the country’s Prime Minister to settle things.
International sportsmen, especially those at the top of their profession, have to be selfish. On the field of play it is the captain’s job to ensure that this selfishness is channelised in the team’s cause. Off the field, it is the governing body which has to play that role. A certain creative selfishness is hardwired into the best sportsmen. This is an important ingredient of success.
Every group of professionals – bankers, doctors, architects, musicians – has someone in it who has a reputation for being “difficult to handle”. Still, such people have to be handled; a cooling off period is sometimes recommended. On how Pietersen perceives his return – as a magnanimous gesture by his board or as an inevitable backtracking – will depend his attitude in India, and perhaps his future in the game.
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