Downton has a job on hand

It is Paul Downton’s task to sort out things within the team. Can he do it? I believe so, writes Ted Corbett.

If anyone can solve the problems that have beset England in Australia this winter it is Paul Downton, newly-appointed managing director of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

I knew him well 30 years ago when he was not just the Middlesex and England wicket-keeper in 30 Tests, but wise advisor to both those teams. In Mafia terms he was the consigliere, the man always at the capo di capo’s side with a quietly spoken word or two and calm just when it was needed most.

How England need him now that there is defeat in the air and a rift between Andy Flower, the coach and Kevin Pietersen, perhaps the greatest batsmen of all those who have thousands of England Test runs.

There is a danger, unless someone like Downton points out the right way forward, that Pietersen’s days with England will be seen as a failure; and that would be a waste of ten years.

In case — in common with many other people on the fringes of the England side and some more distant still, you happen to think that Pietersen is a clown with a good eye and terrific strength — I ask you to note what Steve Harmison said recently.

“I have never had trouble with KP,” Harmison said on a BBC sportscast. “I have had discussions with him, sat next to him in the dressing room for several years and I think I appreciate him for the sort of cricketer he is.

“He is hard-working, shrewd and well prepared. He is one of the fittest and thinks about his game and how the opposition will bowl to him. He believes he has the answer to most problems set by the opposing captain and he knows cricket as few other players know cricket.”

You might think that Harmison is a team-mate, a friend, defending his pal. I reckon not. There can be little in common between a fast bowler from as far north as any England paceman has ever come — the soccer town of Ashington, north of Newcastle — and a battering ram batsman from South Africa. In fact it is quite clear now, if it was not before, that Pietersen has no friends; he is in the poet’s words “the cat that walked by itself.” He keeps his own counsel, cares nothing for the habits of other cricketers: all in all, that lonely path has brought him 8,000 runs and 24 centuries in 104 Tests.

It takes a strong minded man to go on his own in what is advertised as a team affair. Those who can walk alone deserve special merit marks. I reckon the worst day’s work England have done in the last five years came when they took the captaincy from Pietersen.

Since then he has been less than the sum of his parts, inclined to lose his wicket at just the wrong moment, hardly as fluent, rarely the greatest of the great that he promised to be when he qualified for England.

Ah... except for that marvellous monster of an innings in Mumbai, an imperious expression of all his qualities, a mix of superb shots and the careful alignment of defensive capabilities. Only Viv Richards, Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh have played greater innings of that type; I would pay to see it a second time, climb barriers if he could guarantee to produce another as good, beat my way past the toughest security to watch a replay.

That was the sign of his greatness but now, at 33, there is talk of disposing of him as if he might be a troublesome boy come into the side unexpectedly and making enemies on all sides.

It is Downton’s task to sort out this split within the team. Can he do it? I believe so.

I was once in the Middlesex dressing room — don’t ask me why, it’s more than 25 years ago — in Mike Gatting’s reign as captain. Gatt held up his hand for silence and asked: “Look, lads, I need some sense here. That umpire the other night, got a few things wrong, robbed us . . .”

Downton found the reasonable explanation. “Let’s not blame him, Gatt. It was dark, they were difficult decisions and he’s not the youngest umpire on the list and he’d had a long day. Give him a lower mark in the report but explain why he got stuff wrong.”

I looked round and found a whole dressing room full of hard-nosed cricketers nodding in agreement. I gather from a friend who played from that same dressing room that this was not a unique piece of advice. Downton earned his right to lead ECB in those days and now he, aged 56, is being tested to the full.

Since that day Downton has had to retire after being hit in the eye by a bail, worked in the City of London for 25 years and enhanced his reputation for shrewd talk and clever advice.

I remember his sense of fun too. During the tour of India, when David Gower’s side unexpectedly won the 1984-5 series, one of the wickets suddenly produced spin. I have rarely seen such a change.

I asked Downton why. “Did you see their last batsman and the shoes he was wearing. You could have climbed Everest in crampons like those!”

I have a feeling that in the next few months he will need that sense of humour just as much as his cool ways and his brain power as he tries to sort out the mess that is the current England team.