London: The scale of the divisiveness on the Ashes tour that ultimately cost Kevin Pietersen his international career extended beyond a push for the removal of team director Andy Flower.
While Pietersen’s barely disguised contempt for Flower’s management and methods boiled over during a players-only meeting after the fourth Test in Melbourne that left most of the squad flabbergasted, sources claim he had also had captain Alastair Cook and vice-captain Matt Prior in his sights for much of the tour.
Pietersen has never hidden his dislike and distrust of Flower’s approach, so there was shock but little surprise when he tore into the coach at that meeting, forcing Cook and Prior to intervene more than once.
But it is now emerging that as well as wanting Flower replaced as coach, Pietersen had grave misgivings about Cook’s captaincy and tactical approach and he further thought Prior was not worth his place — and he made those views known to various colleagues on the tour. Furthermore, it is known he had little time for batting coach Graham Gooch.
There is debate over his motivation for pursuing an agenda of wholesale change from within the dressing room. His supporters suggest it was based on genuine and objective concern for the future prospects of the team.
Others say he never got over losing the captaincy in the fiasco that resulted in his sacking and that of coach Peter Moores in the winter of 2008-09, and that he saw the Ashes loss as an opportunity to grab it back.
Whatever lies behind his thinking, the disappointment felt by Cook and Prior is all the more acute because Pietersen is aware that, were it not for them, his international career might have ended in 2012 after the Textgate storm that enveloped English cricket.
Then, when Pietersen was dropped for the final Test against South Africa after it emerged he had sent derogatory text messages to ‘close friends’ inside the opposition dressing room about Flower and Andrew Strauss, then skipper, certain powerful voices were dead set on ending Pietersen’s seven-year Test career.
Had Strauss carried on, it may have spelled the end for him.
But, after Pietersen said it was ‘tough being me in the England dressing room’ in an extraordinary press conference following his brilliant hundred at Headingley, Prior extended the hand of friendship. The wicketkeeper was the only player to call his troubled teammate in an effort to move forward.
Later, even though Pietersen was not at first selected for the tour to India, new captain Cook sought to canvass the opinions of his senior players and then made decisive moves to bring him back into the fold.
Flower was uncertain, but felt he had to support his new skipper. Pietersen repaid them with a wonderful century in the second Test in Mumbai and the uneasy peace held through last summer’s 3-0 Ashes victory, until it all ended in tears this winter.
As the fallout from the 5-0 defeat spreads, Flower has relinquished day-to-day control of the England team — he will continue to exert an influence in his new role with the England Cricket Board — and Prior ended the series on the sidelines. In addition, observers with no axe to grind have proposed Cook should quit the captaincy to concentrate on his batting.
On Saturday, Andrew Flintoff not only called Flower’s style domineering, but also accused Cook of letting things “stand still” as regards team planning and insisted that simply blaming Pietersen was “just not right”.
“It’s when you’re not doing well that you need team spirit, and I haven’t seen too many people coming out and accepting responsibility for this one,” said Flintoff, the captain when England were whitewashed by Australia in 2006-07. “The group don’t seem to be a group any more. They’ve got one player who can take the blame and the rest of them want to go about their business and let him take the fall.
“It’s not that we couldn’t bowl them out, not that we couldn’t score runs, not that we got outplayed — it’s Kevin Pietersen’s fault. I’d have more respect for some of the senior players if they held their hands up, rather than letting it all get heaped on one bloke.”
Yet senior figures consider Pietersen’s actions undermined team spirit from the start. They point out that his silence over an all-out attack on Cook by his close friend and ally Shane Warne before the series, when the Aussie called for the captain to be replaced by Pietersen, whose disinclination to offer public support thereafter left more questions than answers.
And his refusal to counter the assault on Cook by his No 1 cheerleader, Piers Morgan, who tweeted ‘Sack Cook’ at every available opportunity, did little to help team unity.
When Pietersen hijacked the team meeting in Melbourne — called with Flower’s support and aimed at urging players to take more responsibility for their performances — he tried to press for a regime change. That was seen as final confirmation that he had no qualms about undermining team unity already rocked by the trauma of Jonathan Trott’s early departure and the continuing struggles on the field.
When, before making the decision to sack Pietersen last week, new managing director Paul Downton took soundings from all concerned, he was left in no doubt of the general belief that Pietersen’s actions and behaviour concerning Flower, Cook and Prior were not merely divisive, but bordered on a deliberate attempt to undermine the leadership of the group.
Indeed, any lingering support from within has been blown away following Morgan’s efforts to drag Prior into the row over that meeting in Melbourne, and what some see as wilful twisting of Prior’s words in order to misrepresent his position over Flower and demonstrate his support for Pietersen. Morgan accused Prior of being a hypocrite to his five million Twitter followers, claiming the wicketkeeper had “stabbed [Pietersen] in the back” by failing to support the batsman when Downton was taking soundings over his future, even though he had backed him in the meeting.
Pietersen had initially complained he did not want to attend because it would cut into “family time”, then used the opportunity to launch a broadside on Flower. Morgan stated Prior had joined in and attacked Flower’s dictatorial style.
Prior, enraged by Morgan’s attempt to enlist his support for Pietersen’s anti-Flower stance, responded by pointing out that his words were intended to underline that the team had to face their own failure without blaming the management or Flower. Pietersen misjudged the mood of the meeting when Prior and Cook attempted to steer the discussion back to the issue of personal responsibility.
What did not help Pietersen’s cause was his “that’s the way I play” batting in the first three Ashes Tests.
The deal has always been that if you take his runs, you take the rest. But the manner of his dismissals in five of the first six innings in Australia led Geoff Boycott to savage him and former England batsman David Gower to remark “his absolute insistence to try to dominate at all costs, to show his ego at all costs, cost England dear”.
Those who have followed Pietersen’s extraordinary journey from a young South African off-spinner who found his prospects for advancement limited in his home country, to one of the most destructive batsmen in the world, have witnessed just how disruptive he can be… without trying.
What happens when he is trying can be devastating, as Moores, Strauss and many others have discovered to their cost.
One man who saw it coming was Mike Newell, Nottinghamshire’s director of cricket, who fell out with him when they were at Trent Bridge.
At the time Pietersen was reintegrated after of Textgate, Newell said: “He’s England best player but I think it’s a short-term fix… somewhere down the line it will go wrong again. If England beat Australia [in the summer of 2013], they’ll be okay and they’ll get through the Ashes in the winter. But in a year, I’m afraid, you can see it all kicking off again.”
The only thing wrong about that forecast was the timescale.