“Andrew. Well firstly, congratulations on your new role in English cricket. I’ve got to start off with the Kevin Pietersen situation.” As honeymoon periods go, it was laughably brief. Eleven words, to be precise. But as Andrew Strauss made his first public appearance as the new director of English cricket, perhaps the absence of a cordial welcome suited him down to the ground.
After all, in his first three days in the job, he has somehow managed to sack a coach, sack a Test vice‑captain, sack a Twenty20 captain, and sack a batsman who had already been sacked. At this rate, Strauss will be the only employee left at the England and Wales Cricket Board by Christmas.
Besides, as the man himself put it, this is a sport moving quickly. While Strauss held court on the balcony of the Lord’s pavilion, across town at the Oval Kevin Pietersen was still batting. In the time it took Strauss to give his first interview of the day to Sky Sports News, Pietersen had gone from his overnight 326 to 351.
The dozens of journalists, photographers and assorted hangers-on began to suspect that perhaps they had gone to the wrong ground.
Instead of watching a batting masterclass by one of the modern greats of the sport, we were listening to a man in a sensible shirt and cufflinks giving a seminar on team synergy. Try selling that to the lucrative Indian television market.
A bright-eyed Andrew Strauss divulges ECB wisdom at Lord's
But then, trying to take on Pietersen in a public relations battle is like trying to take on an octopus at Twister. You will never win. Even though it was Strauss and his boss Tom Harrison who had taken the step of meeting Pietersen for dinner on Monday night, they still managed to come out of it looking worse: like the famous Granita pact, if it had ended with Gordon Brown punching Tony Blair’s lights out.
In a way, Strauss and Harrison were desperately unlucky to have their big day out overshadowed by one of the batsmen of our lives playing one of the innings of his life. But somehow, the longer they spoke the less sympathy you felt for them. The ECB responded to Pietersen’s triple century with a humongous double standard.
Firstly the issue of “trust”, a word to which Strauss kept returning. In fact, he used it so often it was almost as if he was reciting the rehearsed spiel of a prewritten PR script, not that we would ever accuse him of that.
And so important did Strauss appear to regard the issue of trust that you began to wonder whether he had stumbled upon some undiscovered secret of the game, a Moneyball-style performance metric that would blow the sport wide open. “Yes, we lost 2-0 to New Zealand and our batsmen failed miserably. But on the plus side, Chris Jordan let Jos Buttler borrow his garden shears, so it’s been a good week on the whole.”
How are you supposed to build trust, anyway? Perhaps, in retrospect, the whole idea of Pietersen going back to Surrey and scoring runs in county cricket was a complete red herring. What he and Strauss clearly needed was a weekend in Snowdonia: trekking over the hills, taking it in turns to fall backwards and catch each other, sharing their deepest and darkest secrets by the campfire.
Instead, Strauss’s idea of an olive branch was to invite Pietersen to join his one-day cricket advisory panel. History does not record whether this offer was made before or after Strauss told Pietersen he did not trust him, but either way it was the equivalent of not inviting someone to a dinner party, and then asking him if he knows a decent recipe for Dover sole.
“He’s got some very strong views on one-day cricket, and I think it would be madness not to try and get that information out of his head,” Strauss said, inadvertently hinting at some form of invasive surgery.
Kevin Pietersen's innings at the Oval – more interesting than a team synergy lecture
Beside Strauss, Harrison was nodding vigorously. Harrison seemed impressive at first glance. He looked his interlocutors in the eye, admitted that mistakes had been made over the handling of Peter Moores’s sacking, announced his magnanimous intention to “draw a line” under the whole sordid Pietersen affair, whilst obviously ruling nothing out.
Evidently, Harrison was presenting himself as the smooth-talking antidote to scattergun chairman Colin Graves. County chief executives joke among themselves that “ECB” presently stands for “Explaining Colin’s Behaviour”.
Obviously, no guarantees could be given about Pietersen’s future. No player, after all, has a divine right to a place in the side. Unless, of course, your name is Alastair Cook, who a beaming Strauss confirmed as captain for the Ashes series this summer.
And obviously the England team need “stability”, as Strauss put it shortly after removing Moores as coach, Ian Bell as Test vice-captain, Stuart Broad as Twenty20 captain and recommending a new selection system.
Strauss develops a trusting relationship with a reporter
Obviously we want to “broaden the audience” of English cricket, Strauss said, whilst shutting the door on English cricket’s single most electrifying talent of our generation. And obviously we want cricketers “who can think for themselves”, Strauss enthused, whilst laying out the job specification for a new coach who will be told not to pick Pietersen.
The most alarming trait of today’s ECB is not the hypocrisy, but the doublethink. They really do seem to believe that you can have one rule for the captain and one rule for everyone else. That you can tell a player to go and score runs in county cricket and then turn him away when he does. And that there is nothing especially untoward in any of this, and anybody who says so is probably a splitter or a Piers Morgan fan or something.
Perhaps it is a little unfair to blame Strauss for all this. He has, after all, inherited someone else’s mess, and is clearly addressing it with the best of intentions. But from his first appearance in office, one thing was manifestly clear. The ECB’s real issue of trust is not with Pietersen but with us.