By David de Winter – Sports Editor
With England’s failure to win the first Test in Antigua last week, the debate over Kevin Pietersen’s return to the international fold has taken on even greater significance. Never one to shirk the limelight, Pietersen announced in March that he was eschewing his IPL contract with the Sunrisers Hyderbad in favour of playing a full county season with Surrey in an attempt to force his way back into the England reckoning after incoming ECB chairman Colin Graves suggested that the South African-born batsman’s international career was not necessarily over. His 170 against Oxford University further fuelled debate on an international return and with England currently struggling in the Caribbean, could Pietersen really line up for England against Australia for the first Ashes test in Cardiff on the 8th of July?
When KP was unceremoniously sacked after the Ashes debacle in 2014, I personally regarded it as a complete scandal. However, public opinion was generally anti-Pietersen. The ‘textgate’ incident of 2012 coupled with his cocksure demeanour and egotistical behaviour never endeared him to the English cricketing community. The feeling was that Pietersen was no longer an integral part of the team and that England had enough talent coming through to cope with his departure.
Roll on 15 months and the same people who concurred with Pietersen’s exclusion are now calling for him to be reconsidered for England duty. Nowhere was it more apparent that England sorely missed KP than at the recent World Cup. As England’s batsmen toiled and wilted against classy opposition bowling, their inexperienced batting line-up was crying out for a man of Pietersen’s class and knowledge. He may have only made a slight difference (even he couldn’t have carried a woeful England side beyond the quarter finals) but would the run chase balls-up against Bangladesh have happened had Pietersen been in the side? I doubt it.
The real issue here is that Pietersen’s ‘sacking’ suited neither party. The man is driven by personal success. He craves records and he desires to be recognised as England’s greatest batsman. Whilst there might be a slightly selfish strand to his temperament his voracious appetite for runs could surely only have been of benefit to the England cricket team. Touring the world as a Twenty20 specialist was clearly not fulfilling and his acceptance of a contract with Surrey over a lucrative stint in the IPL (without any guarantees of international selection) is evidence of his commitment to prolonging his international career.
Likewise, the England team failed to cope with the pressure following the Surrey batsman’s sacking, heartbreakingly losing the test series to Sri Lanka in May 2014. They managed to beat a hugely underwhelming India team 3-1 and at that point, it was very much a question of Kevin who? Nevertheless a winter of one-day cricket followed (remember England had rescheduled the Ashes series so as to give themselves as good a chance of possible of World Cup glory? Look how well that turned out) which culminated in a wholly embarrassing performance down-under and a final humiliation to Bangladesh.
So question one. Is Kevin Pietersen still good enough to play for England? Undisputedly yes. He is capable of game-changing innings, of totally dominating a bowling attack in a way no other England player can with the possible exception of Ian Bell. Is there space for him in the side? That is debatable. Gary Ballance, despite his dreadful form in the one-day arena has had an electric start to his Test career and surely cannot be dropped. Ian Bell and Joe Root are permanent fixtures in the middle order and Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler provide England with a nice balance at numbers 6, 7 and 8. There are question marks over current openers Jonathan Trott and captain Alastair Cook but Pietersen cannot be expected to play in such a specialist position.
Ironically, whilst all the talk is currently of Pietersen, it is the bowling attack which has really been hindering the England cricket team. They hardly threatened in the World Cup and whilst they toiled admirably last week in Antigua, the bowlers still couldn’t take the required 8 wickets on the final day to force victory against a relatively inexperienced West Indies side.
Unfortunately whereas England have a (relative) embarrassment of riches in the batting department (alongside Pietersen, Adam Lyth and James Taylor are both knocking on the door) they are not currently blessed with quality seamers or spinners. Their most potent strike bowler (Steven Finn) has been unfathomably dropped (again) and consequently there is a notable lack of penetration from Broad, Stokes and Jordan. Off-spinner James Tredwell is a tidy enough operator but is never going to run through teams á la Graeme Swann.
In reality, until the bowling attack is addressed, England, with or without Kevin Pietersen, will continue to struggle. As a Surrey fan myself, I am delighted that he is back playing county cricket but it is clear that he craves and deserves the biggest stage of all. Whether that becomes a reality remains to be seen, but a lot can happen between now and the start of the Ashes series. One thing is clear; England are certainly not a weaker proposition with Pietersen in the side.