Strauss faces biggest test

Monty Panesar, Andrew Flintoff and Peter Moores. Flintoff’s refusal to support Pietersen’s assault on the England coach, Peter Moores, had made Kevin’s resignation as captain inevitable.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Never have the new captain’s diplomatic skills been more needed than in the wake of Kevin Pietersen’s self-destruction. By David Hopps.

If Kevin Pietersen had underestimated the furore he had caused in English cricket, the headlines as he flew into Heathrow left him in no doubt. He must have wondered how he could enter an England dressing room again.

According to The Sun, he had become “cricket’s most hated man”. The Mirror told him that he had been “stabbed in the back” by his England team-mates. And the Mail even named a culprit. “Andrew Flintoff leads a mutiny,” it said, arguing that Flintoff’s refusal to support Pietersen’s assault on the England coach, Peter Moores, had made his resignation as captain inevitable.

Andrew Strauss, his replacement as England captain, had made an unflappable attempt to restore sanity. The maverick captaincy of Pietersen, which self-destructed within five months, had been replaced by the smooth diplomacy of Strauss. Never has it been more needed.

The French president, Charles de Gaulle, once observed that “diplomats are useful only in fair weather.” But that was not true of Strauss, whose emollience will need to be hard-edged in a dressing room which, if not exactly riven by conflict, will be awash with mistrust and resentment.

“I totally believe that KP did everything with the best intentions for the England cricket team,” Strauss said. “I do have some sympathy for him because he was doing what he felt was right. That is KP as a person. I don’t think he should be vilified for that. KP is a very strong-willed person. That was one of his great strengths as an England captain. He had an idea of where England cricket needed to go and he wasn’t afraid of upsetting people along the way. In a way that was one of his finest traits but it also caused some confrontations.

“You need these sort of people in your team, people who aren’t going to take a backward step. He showed that with his batting and that is how he tried to run his captaincy.” The willingness of Flintoff, a cornerstone of the dressing room, to accommodate him is crucial. They have never been natural allies. Flintoff, too, was never likely to support Pietersen’s attack on Moores, with whom he had a much more comfortable relationship than that with his predecessor as England coach, Duncan Fletcher.

But Flintoff and Pietersen rubbed along on the field in India, respecting each other’s talents and professionalism even as the relationship between captain and coach was becoming irreconcilable. Pietersen is capricious and theatrical; Flintoff prefers earthier company. But Flintoff does not believe that he has led a mutiny, as much as refuse to support one.

Strauss had also been ambivalent when contacted by the England team manager, Hugh Morris. “In that sort of situation people get pushed into a corner,” Strauss said. “The key thing is that the captain and the coach get on and I don’t think from a player’s point of view that we gained much by getting involved too heavily. But my experience of England dressing rooms has been that we have got on well. I don’t think anything has happened to change that.

“I don’t believe the rift is as bad as people make out. My job is to manage the dressing room and make sure we are all going in the right direction. That is going to take some effort on the players’ behalf. You are not going to walk in and everything is going to be hunky dory. But this England team has a duty to perform well.”

Andy Afford, a former Nottinghamshire spinner and now editor of All Out cricket magazine, studied Pietersen’s fallout at Trent Bridge at close hand. He thinks he can survive the most troubled period of his career.

“He is the sort of personality where it will be as if it had never happened,” Afford said. “He has always been very sure of his opinions and to some degree a law unto himself with regard to dressing-room etiquette. He just says what he thinks.

“He can be quite gushing and emotional but he is incredibly resilient. He misjudged the situation and it horribly backfired — he never planned on losing the England captaincy — but he can brazen it out. He will take his place in the changing room and get on with the job. He is a gregarious bloke. It all just ran away with him.”

Geoff Cook, coach to the county champions, Durham, also judged Pietersen’s reintroduction as “not impossible by a long stretch.” He said: “The guys in the dressing room know what KP was like before he was captain. I don’t think anything he has done will have surprised anybody. If there are factions it can become uncontrollable. People find themselves sliding into attitudes that they don’t want to adopt. But Strauss is in a pretty good situation to address it.”

Monty Panesar, meanwhile, refuted the idea that divisions had built up in the England dressing room. The spinner said: “I’ve heard people saying there are cliques in this England squad but that isn’t true. Of course there are various groups but it would be wrong to call them cliques. There is a real mixture of people in the England team which is totally normal. You get some guys who are really loud and others who are more quiet and reserved. But opposites attract. It’s not a problem having a lot of different characters.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009