I am now recovering from an illness. While ill, the only thing I could manage to pay much attention to, other than the various pains in my head, was the Kevin Pietersen Affair, the contemplation of which, to an England cricket fan like me, is a not dissimilar experience to that of being ill.
Today at Lord’s, the sacred home of cricket, England are embarking on the third and final game in their five day test cricket series against South Africa, but without Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen scored a brilliant century in the previous game. But no, he is not injured. He has been dropped.
Pietersen sent out disloyal tweets about the England captain and coach, for which transgression he did apologise, but too late. You can read the details, in the unlikely event that you want to, in media reports like this one, where phrases like “underlying issues on trust and respect” appear.
Where my interest in all this (I could write about it for ever) and the interest of Samizdata readers (who would presumably prefer me to keep a lid on it) may overlap, or so I hope, is in the big picture background to all this. Which is, in a word: India.
From time to time, usually, as now, from a writer trying to use such circumstances as a metaphor, you read about planetary objects being subjected by much heavier objects in their vicinity to gravitational forces so severe that different parts of the smaller planetary object start to be pulled in different directions, perhaps so severely that the smaller object threatens to fly into pieces. This is what is now happening to cricket in England, under the influence of that much larger cricketing object, cricket in India. Cricket is now like a solar system, and the quite big planet that is England cricket is being yanked about by the gravitational forces being exerted upon it by the Sun. And that Sun is: India.
The background to the argument between Kevin Pietersen and the E(ngland and Wales) C(ricket) B(oard), the people who run the Engand cricket team, is that Kevin Pietersen desires to be both an England international cricketer, and also to maximise his income (and also enjoyment and ego-massage) from cricket by all other available means, while nevertheless contriving somehow not to drop dead from physical and mental exhaustion. In particular, Pietersen yearns to be both an England cricketer and a fully paid up (very well paid up indeed) player in the Indian Premier League, the Indian twenty overs tournament that takes place in April and May of each year.
The ECB treats the IPL as just another foreign cricket league, concerning which they need to care very little. It’s a nuisance to their arrangements, but no more. They do not – or such seems their attitude – need to contrive any “window” to allow England cricketers to neglect their early season England cricket in order to cash in from a meaningless foreign slogfest, and then allow them time off from England games, or preparations for England games, so that they can avoid becoming completely exhausted. They pay England players well, and that should be quite enough, is their attitude.
But for any cricketer good enough or lucky enough to get a contract to be part of it, the IPL can be the difference between an anxious transition, when the time comes, from professional sport to the rigours of real life, and being financially secure for life, especially if he does well in it and gets asked back several times. During the limited time when Pietersen was able to play in this year’s IPL (he had to leave before the tournament ended), he did very well, scoring another brilliant century, for the
Deccan Chargers Delhi Daredevils.
The over-arching fact about cricket now is that the IPL is not just another tournament in a faraway country. It is the first great assertion in the cricket world – the cricket world – of the massive economic power of Indian cricket fandom. As I never tire of saying in my various cricket blog postings, there are more cricket fans in India than there are people in Europe. I remember when the millions of India were famous only for starving. Now, these same millions are striding towards twenty first century affluence. And they are taking cricket with them.
If India really, really wants to watch you play twenty twenty cricket for a month and a half, at a time when cricket in England is only getting started in weather that is often vile (despite anything the Met Office may have told cricket people about such months getting warmer), then if you are a cricketer, you really, really want to say yes. But meanwhile, the ECB been starting its test match programme each year earlier and earlier, so that they have enough test matches to pay for all those wonderful new stadiums that they have encouraged the English counties to build in such excessive numbers and on such a grandiose scale during the previous decade.
The BBC’s Jonathan Agnew sides with the ECB and against Kevin Pietersen:
Trying to manoeuvre things so he can play for England and play a full season in the Indian Premier League is not the way Pietersen should be behaving.
Certain New Zealanders do it, as does Chris Gayle of West Indies, but that is because their boards do not have the money to pay them well. They accept players can earn big sums in the IPL.
But English cricket can afford to pay their players well and that is why they are top of the world rankings and both New Zealand and West Indies are not.
England players are well paid and must be available to play. You sign the contract, like Pietersen did, or you don’t.
Why, I wonder, does Agnew not mention the South Africans, whose best players also now adorn the IPL, and yet who, despite that exhausting interlude of money-grubbing, are now very likely to topple England as the best test team in the world? (All the Saffers have to do to accomplish this is not lose this third game at Lord’s.)
The England cricket team is in the meantime top of the test rankings not because it is a team of great players, or even a truly great team, but because it is a very good team with some very good players, very well coached, skilfully lead, at a time when there are no truly great teams around as great as the Australians of a decade ago or the West Indians two decades ago. England are now the first among a number of equals, and very soon, probably, not even the first.
But unlike anyone else in this England team, and when he functions in top gear, Kevin Pietersen is a truly great player. The ECB now want all of us England fans to think that the only reason that both the ECB and the rest of the England team have such a bad relationship with Pietersen is because Pietersen is … Pietersen. But this is not the only reason. Pietersen is indeed (to summarise heroically) somewhat of a plonker. But he is also a member of a small cricketing elite, namely one of those cricketers who can set himself up financially for life by playing in the IPL. None of the other England players fall into that exalted category. Of all the current England players, only Pietersen is definitely, directly, suffering from the lack of an IPL window in the England cricket season. Other England cricketers can fantasise about how they might strike it rich in the IPL. Meanwhile, they are, as Agnew points out, being paid very decently. Pietersen knows he could double his money, if he was only allowed to.
And what is more, Pietersen knows he can switch to the IPL, if he has to. Given the flat out choice, he would prefer to stick with England, while hoping that the IPL window he so desires can somehow be prized open, if only for him. But the reason he has been doing so much brinkmanship lately is that he does have a truly lucrative alternative, unlike anyone else in the England team. If he gave up on England and played for the IPL, he could also play in lots of other IPL copies, in Australia, Sri Lanka, maybe even soon (whisper it) England. (At present England has a faltering T20 tournament scattered stupidly throughout its ever more stupid season.) So, Pietersen’s bargaining position is unlike that of any other England player.
See what I mean about gravitational pulls pulling smaller planetary objects into bits? Indian cricket is now tearing a chunk out of the England cricket team. And if any of the new crop of England hopefuls with a penchant for hitting sixes (Bairstow and Hales spring to mind) make the leap to true greatness in the next few years, they too will be subjected to just the same gravitational forces as Pietersen is now feeling. It is not that Pietersen is a South African mercenary, or a plonker, although his plonkerdom in particular does not help. Without the IPL he would be a contented member of the England team. With the IPL he is a frustrated super-talent, who knows that he is within touching distance of being twice the cricketer he is now, and being paid twice as much.
The interests of the England players who cannot be sure of getting the big bucks in the IPL but who would love to give it a go, are such they they now want to keep their heads down and just carry on being paid well to play for England. But, they would love it if Pietersen could somehow carve an IPL window out of the English season, on their behalf as well as his own. They would like him to win this fight, in other words, but dare not now say so. How do you reckon Pietersen feels about that? More gravity.
Football (aka soccer) knows all about this kind of yanking around of its national teams, by the pull of unimaginably rich foreign club tournaments. In football, international teams are almost all of them potential arenas of conflict between the few who can get lucrative club contracts in such places as Spain or England, and the rest who are good but not that good. But everyone involved in a team like, I don’t know, Senegal, knows this. They face the problem of, say, their two star players being tired from playing a full season for Real Madrid or Bayern or Man City, and they deal with it. A problem faced is a problem well on the way to being solved. The ECB problem is more basic. Their biggest problem in the Pietersen Affair is that they seem unwilling to face the fact that they have a problem. They think it’s personal. Pietersen can bat to die for, but he is a plonker. Make him knuckle under or get rid of him. They think Pietersen is the problem. No, the problem is India, and how to live with India.
What must be especially frustrating for Pietersen is that the alternative universe that the ECB still clings to is already such a proven absurdity.
That IPL window, which the ECB still refuses to open for England players is now a global cricket fact. No other countries bother with test cricket while the IPL is in session, which means that if England remains the only one (in its own eyes) in step, then even if in some Platonic sense they are “right” about the wrongness of the IPL and of people like Pietersen wanting so very much to play in it, who the hell are they going to play against?
We witnessed the nonsensical answer to this question in England earlier this year, when England, in vile English weather, trounced the West Indies second eleven. The West Indian team, the proper one, is now the opposite of England, being most definitely less than the sum of its parts, not the least of its problems having been that they have felt, for several years now, as Agnew notes, the full force of the IPL’s gravitational pull and have been pulled completely apart by it. They have a number of very IPL friendly players, with several potential Kevin Pietersens in their side and at least one actual Kevin Pietersen, in the shape of Chris Gayle, the current IPL batting top dog bar none. (Gayle has had just the same problems trying to gouge sense out of the West Indies cricket bosses that Pietersen has been having. Like Pietersen, he is a tricky man to deal with.) And these West Indian stars all played in the IPL, leaving their journeyman brethren to lose their meaningless test series in England.
I remember very little about that meaningless test series in England, but I do remember that on the first day of it, Chris Gayle scored an utterly brilliant century. I watched this brilliant century on my television. But Gayle did not score this brilliant century for the West Indies, against England. He scored it for the Bangalore Royal Challengers.
You would think that the ECB would have got the message. How soon before cricket fandom everywhere just hoots with derision at these “test matches” in the sodden and frigid English spring? Such tests test nobody except the out-of-their depth second-stringers sucked into them. With the star players of the touring side missing, these tests mean very little. Sport is all about meaning. Drain the meaning from a game, and the thing is dead in the water. Literally in the water, if you are playing in England, in May, and you don’t get lucky.
I haven’t done the sums, but it occurs to me to wonder if England would already now have been definitely toppled as the number one test team, if you exclude that meaningless 2-0 win against the Windies? My guess: yes.
For many decades, cricket was another kind of solar system, and England (in the shape of the M(arylebone) C(ricket) C(lub) (made world famous in a Monty Python sketch for having bested the Piranha Brothers – 3m51s into this)) was the Sun. Then for a few years cricket was just a gaggle of countries, the top few all being roughly equal. Now it is a solar system again, and now India is – to be more precise India’s fans are – the Sun. I guess if you were once the old Sun, having to cohabit as a mere planet with a new Sun is rather galling.
Nevertheless, it must be done.
This posting has only incidentally been about Kevin Pietersen. What it is really about is the rise to global prominence of India, and about what that is doing to the globe.