Kevin Pietersen and the Muppets

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Kevin Pietersen and the English cricket media, or at least certain large sections of it, don’t get along. We know that. So when the Daily Mail’s Paul Newman (a long-time KP antagonist) and others claim that Pietersen labelled county cricketers “muppets who are on £18,000, £15,000” and advised them to either “become better or go and do something else”, it’s worth digging around a little for the context.

Newman’s article is littered with insinuations and insults of its own, suggesting that concerns Pietersen made about the future of Test cricket weren’t surprising “for a man who no longer plays the ultimate form of the game”. The attempt to invalidate Pietersen’s right to an opinion is rendered even more absurd by another article published in the Daily Mail on the same day by Rory Dollard.

Dollard reports that Michael Carberry, another ex-England player enjoying a successful Big Bash stint, has also called for a revamp of England’s domestic Twenty20 competition. Dollard remarks that those who deny any change is needed “appear to be an increasingly marginal band of flat-earthers”. Same publication, two different responses to the voicing of similar general viewpoints.

Kevin Pietersen has a habit of saying precisely what he thinks, just as he thinks it. He doesn’t tend to use the filter of diplomacy that most of us use in our everyday lives, or that most of his media-trained fellow-professionals do in their interviews. Unfortunately for him, this means it is easy to quote him out of context and make his comments seem much less nuanced than they in fact were.

Pietersen was criticising the current 18-county system in English domestic cricket, advocating replacing it with a 10-team franchise model. He was also criticising the recently introduced salary cap, which was a significant factor in Surrey’s decision not to sign him for the 2015 season.

His criticism of the salary cap was perfectly valid. The idea behind the cap was to encourage counties to give more opportunities to young, home-grown English cricketers rather than buying in older, foreign players on Kolpak deals. Concern about the opportunities available for English players to progress has been growing for years, with the prevalence of foreign-born players (such as Pietersen himself) in England’s international squads provoking anxiety that county cricket wasn’t producing top-quality players.

Pietersen argues that this isn’t the way to improve young English cricketers and prepare them for the rigours of the world stage. For Pietersen, reducing the number of teams and introducing a franchise system would make the system leaner and more competitive, and the top English players could learn by playing with and against stars from all over the world. It is an ambitious target, and it may not be the best way forward, but it is a legitimate disagreement with ECB policy that should be taken seriously.

The “muppets” comment was therefore directed at the cricketers Pietersen feels, rightly or wrongly, would not find regular employment under his proposed franchise system. If there were fewer contracts available, players would either be more motivated to improve, or they would find other jobs. This suggests that, in Pietersen’s opinion, it has become too easy for players to coast through county careers without necessarily being forced to improve.

Pietersen is an extremely talented and driven individual who (as he has stated and shown) has little time for those who aren’t as driven or talented as him. The problem with this attitude is that, for Pietersen, it doesn’t leave a wide pool of people to respect. That presumably includes county cricketers who haven’t made the leap to international stardom.

His interest is in the top level of cricket, and not with anything lower down. He may well be correct in thinking that the way to coax the elite cricketers out of the most promising English youngsters is to have them facing the Steyns and Malingas of this world as often as possible. Whether cricket as a whole would be richer in England without the likes of Chris Rushworth, Jack Shantry and Zafar Ansari (all of whom might struggle to secure a deal in a ten-team system), is unclear.

The English system has its virtues and its flaws. The County Championship is one of the most competitive first-class leagues in the world, and has produced some of the best young Test players on the planet. England’s failure to compete in international limited-overs cricket should be a worry for those in charge, and Pietersen offers one potential solution. That he expressed it poorly is regrettable, but the future of English cricket should be more important than trying to score points off an ill-chosen phrase.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to where one locates the value of cricket. Is it in the Test arena, the IPL, the County Championship, the World Cup or the World T20? The answer, as always, is (or should be) a balance of all of them. The sport belongs as much to the Rikki Clarkes and Wayne Madsens of this world as it does to the Kevin Pietersens and Virat Kohlis. There is room enough for all of them to co-exist. Change is needed, perhaps with less of the brutality of Pietersen’s vision.

Yet again, though, a serious issue has been marred by pettiness and point-scoring. Journalists frequently complain about the formulaic and guarded nature of press conferences, and yet any loose remark is used by some as ammunition against the player. Pietersen’s honesty and openness is one of his best qualities, but other cricketers might be forgiven for keeping their cards closer to their chest.

Pietersen’s remark was not an insult. It was an opinion, from a man with a great deal of experience of top-level cricket, of how England could produce top-level cricketers. The opinion may be wrong, or narrow, or biased, but he isn’t the only person to have them, and the longer England remain outside the top four in the ODI and T20I rankings, the longer the debate about domestic limited-overs competitions will go on.

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