How do you solve a problem like Kevin Pietersen? Despite being one of England’s greatest, most exciting batsmen in history, Pietersen’s stubborn single-mindedness has often overshadowed his performances on the pitch. Late last month, he surrounded himself in more controversy following his curious retirement from one-day international cricket which has now ruled him out of competing for England in both the 50-over and T20 formats. Pietersen highlighted the overly intensive schedule as the primary factor behind his decision to retire.
On the surface, Pietersen’s decision appears illogical given the fact that he has now excluded himself from the T20 World Cup in October, where England will defend the title they won in the West Indies in May 2010. The apparent lunacy at the timing of Pietersen’s decision is compounded by the fact that the 31-year-old has admitted his strong desire to play in the show-pieced competition, where two years ago he won the player of the tournament award. Former England captain Michael Vaughan described Pietersen’s decision to quit as ‘staggering’ and this appears to reflect the majority view within the sport.
Taking aside the questionable timing of Pietersen’s decision, his retirement should not come as a massive surprise. Clearly, over the past three years, one-day cricket and Kevin Pietersen have been anything but a marriage made in heaven. Since losing the England captaincy in acrimonious circumstances early in 2009, Pietersen’s one-day form has been abject. Prior to his successful series against Pakistan earlier this year, he averaged a mere 25.45 in ODIs between March 2009 and October 2011, scoring no hundreds. Pietersen has also struggled to handle the greater volume of cricket he has played since first appearing in the Indian Premier League in 2009. In his debut competition, he aggravated an achilles injury which curtailed much of his campaign that summer, leading to his absence from the England squad in the ICC Champions Trophy. The South African-born player has experienced subsequent ailments, particularly a hernia injury sustained at the 2011 World Cup.
However, none of these reasons appear to be pertinent to Pietersen’s current situation. He has established a definite role as an opening batsmen to exploit the power-plays, his rhythm has returned - with two recent hundreds in the UAE - and he looks more determined than ever. Here again the timing of the decision seems strange. Far more relevant are the issues of fitness, scheduling and the IPL which have warranted a solution to Pietersen’s unsustainable programme. It would appear as if Pietersen was presented with three options moving forward. The first of those would have been to retire from ODIs, continuing with a career in Test cricket and the highly lucrative IPL. The second, to abandon his IPL commitments and focus solely on international cricket for England, in all three forms. The third option would have involved a new, compromised role for Pietersen in England’s one-day set-up, whereby Andy Flower would carefully manage Pietersen’s schedule, resting the player where required, allowing him to prolong his career in both the international and IPL arenas.
The rational choice would appear to be the third avenue. However, the solution to all the anomalies and the seemingly warped logic used by Pietersen in his decision-making process lies in a factor that has hindered the ex-Hampshire man throughout his career - his ego. There have been numerous cases in the past where Pietersen has seemed unwilling to accept a more bit-part role in the England one-day set-up. Following his omission from the ODI squad to face Pakistan in September 2010, the ECB fined Pietersen for the use of a swear word in a tweet that expressed clear outrage at the decision. 12 months later when rested from England’s one-day side against India, he once again expressed his reservations at the selection policy. In a far more restrained manner, Pietersen appeared on BBC news late last year, stating, ‘we’ve [England’s one-day side] used so many players, whether it be through injury or rest’. This last quote is particularly revealing. Clearly he does not see rest as a viable solution to an overly strenuous cricket schedule. It explains why Pietersen did not heed Flower’s advice and adopt a schedule similar to the third option highlighted above.
The wisdom of Pietersen’s decision to quit is further called into question when considering its repercussions. Pietersen only needed to look at his England team mate, Andrew Strauss, to get a picture of the potentially disruptive effects of retiring from ODI cricket. Flower recently acknowledged that for the first year after his one-day retirement, Strauss struggled for rhythm amid the stop-start nature of his schedule. Pietersen will undoubtedly face the same pitfalls. Between now and the start of the South Africa Test series next month, Pietersen will only appear in three T20 games and one first class match for Surrey, meaning that he runs the risk of being undercooked for the South Africa series.
The Pietersen retirement saga has raised broader questions as to the future of 50-over cricket. The ever growing phenomena of T20 cricket, particularly through franchised leagues such as the IPL and Big Bash, means that the three-pronged nature of international cricket is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Given the rightful pre-eminence of Test cricket on the international stage, the endangered species would appear to be the 50-over game. The ECB has already taken steps to safeguard this format. Every player signing up to a central contract must jointly commit to both forms of one-day cricket, meaning a player cannot make himself available for T20’s without doing the same for 50-over cricket, hence Pietersen’s dilemma. The international cricketing authorities must take similar steps to preserve the 50-over game, perhaps by altering the balance of matches played in both 50-over and T20 series and in so doing reduce the amount of 50-over cricket that is played. If drastic steps are not taken, 50-over cricket could become a defunct form of the game in the years to come, as players will follow Pietersen’s lead in supplementing their Test match career with a feast of T20 action.