Kevin Pietersen 'not worth' all the drama
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"All things end badly, otherwise they wouldn't end" - Koglan, (Tom Cruise's boss) from the film Cocktail.
The careers of international cricketers invariably follow this all too true pattern. For every Sachin Tendulkar, whose final test at age 40 (number 200 for him) was virtually a national holiday in India, there are dozens of players forced out prematurely with injuries, or shuffled out by selectors against their will to facilitate "the rebuilding process".
Rarely though have things ended as badly, or as seemingly prematurely for a great player, as they have with the English cricket management's decision to end the international career of Kevin Pietersen.
Following England's humiliating 5-0 "Johnsoning" at the hands of Australia, it was expected that changes would be made.
The end of series resignation of England team director Andy Flower was expected, as were other changes to England's management staff.
What was not expected though was that Pietersen would be permanently cast aside.
Why would management cast off a player who:
- Is the highest ever run scorer for England.
- Has a test average of 47.28 and ODI average of 40.73.
- Has the second most centuries ever for England.
- Is regarded by many as England's best batsman of the modern era.
Managing director Paul Downton released a statement indicating three reasons for Pietersen's dismissal:
- "there was a need to begin long term planning" = Pietersen is too old (33).
- "the time is right... to rebuild the team" = the team's performance was poor and unlikely to improve as constituted.
- "time to rebuild... the team ethic and philosophy" = Pietersen doesn't fit in off the field.
Let's look at those three issues to see what is fact and what is fiction.
PIETERSEN'S TOO OLD
Each player's career performance arc is different, but looking at how high performing players have fared before and after age 34 in recent history will give us some clues.
There are 12 players who meet the criteria and retired since the year 2000. On average they played 3.5 more years and scored over 3000 test runs after they have turned 34. On average there was a slight drop off in performance, with their combined averages dropping from 52.77 to 48.48.
This also highlights how rare the Pietersen situation is. The only other top quality player who stopped playing international cricket (for any reason) at a similar age was Pakistan opener Saeed Anwar (incidentally, he had the best cricket beard of all time).
This leads me to think that Pietersen's age shouldn't have been a contributing factor or reason for casting him off prior to his 34th birthday.
As I have just highlighted above, players comparable to Pietersen in the modern game on average suffered little drop off in performance from their 34th birthday till their retirement. There was, however, a wide variety of changes on a player to player level.
For example Ricky Ponting averaged 18 runs less per innings after he turned 34 years old than before, whereas Brian Lara actually averaged 11 runs more per innings in that time period.
Looking at Pietersen's career to date, there has already been a noticeable divide and change in performance. Let me break it down:
- 2004-2008: Superstar Pietersen
Test: 83 innings, 51.13 ave, 100+ score rate - every 5.5 innings
ODI: 78 innings, 48.37 ave, 88 strike rate, 100+ score rate - every nine innings,
At the end of 2008, at age 28, Pietersen looked a certainty to be remembered as England's greatest batsman of the previous 60 years and a chance to rise further in the record books.
Whilst in ODI cricket, Pietersen's record was far and away the best in English history.
- 2009-2014: Slightly above average Pietersen
Test: 98 innings, 44.06 ave, 100+ score rate - every 12.5 innings
ODI: 47 innings, 29.70 ave, 84 strike rate, 100+ score rate - every 23 innings
While these numbers are not dreadful, his performance is significantly worse in all aspects than his earlier superstar years. Not only are these numbers not at a superstar level but they are the worst of England's core four batsmen for that period (Cook, Trott, Bell and Pietersen).
But what could have caused his decline at the mere age of 28?
Looking at his history I can see two significant events that happened during 2009.
- He suffered his first major injury, an achilles tendon problem that resulted in missing an entire Ashes series. Since then he has suffered further injuries causing him to miss further matches. Could they have also limited Pietersen's ability to train and prepare the same way he did prior to these issues?
- Having taken over the England captaincy in August of 2008, he was removed/ resigned from the position in January 2009. This was a nuclear level meltdown between himself, England cricket director (coach) Peter Moores and ECB management.
The result was that Moores was fired, Pietersen was no longer captain and everyone involved looked like complete idiots (does this sound familiar New Zealand cricket fans?).
Could it be that such a public humiliation to a hugely prideful man has had a damaging psychological impact on his subsequent levels of performance?
Whatever the reasons were, the end result is that while his numbers alone do not insist that Pietersen be removed from the team, they are no longer so great that they force the selectors to keep him in the team.
PIETERSEN THE OUTSIDER
It is fair to say that opinions on Pietersen vary greatly depending on who is being asked. The most common descriptions that are used though is that he a "divisive" or "controversial" personality.
He has staunch supporters, and harsh critics in the team, management and media.
Sorting through all the anonymous reports and half-truths the only publicly documented incident Pietersen has had was his text message betrayal.
That involved Pietersen sending texts that were critical of team mates to opposition players during a series vs South Africa in 2012. This incident saw him dropped from the England side for six months.
Since his reintegration in late 2012 there have been numerous reports of incidents of friction and disharmony between Pietersen and the management team. The details of which will undoubtedly become a he-said she-said mess in the media in the coming weeks and months.
In this case though the actions of England's management tell us everything that we really need to know. Permanently removing Pietersen from the England picture was the strongest action they had available to them, and that's what they chose to do.
From the outside I'd say this is likely the single greatest reason for ending Pietersen's career.
If this really is the end of Pietersen's England career, as a neutral lover of cricket I will always remember his Ashes battles with the great Australian sides. His aggression and flamboyant stroke making (long live the flamingo) were a treat to watch and will be missed.
Sadly I think his legacy may well equally be a cautionary story that if a player is going to be "controversial" and "divisive" off the field, their on-field performance had better be worth the drama.
In Pietersen's case, I think the numbers show that it no longer was.
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