October 27 2012
When you are contemplating a group trip to an exotic but demanding destination like India, you need to be sure that your fellow travellers will be harmonious tourists. It’s an issue that’s been on the minds of the new England cricket captain, Alastair Cook, and coach, Andy Flower. On October 29, they arrive in Mumbai at the head of a 16-strong party, who will play four Test matches and two Twenty20 games against India before Christmas, and then return for five one-day internationals in the new year. The players’ itinerary will take them to India’s biggest cities and stadiums, including the tumultuous Eden Gardens in Calcutta, where they will encounter the most passionate cricket fans on Earth. Wherever they go, every waiter and auto-rickshaw driver will know their names and want to discuss their chances against the home side’s cricketing heroes.
Touring India, with its unfamiliar conditions, can test the constitutions of non-Asian players. In times past, some English and Australian players were so paranoid about the local food, they would cart suitcases full of spaghetti and baked beans around the sub-continent to avoid any contact with it. The sides coached by Flower, however, have broken with that insular tradition and are being encouraged to embrace every aspect of touring, both on and off the field.
But the big question for the England management in the run-up to this winter’s expedition was whether or not to include Kevin Pietersen. Would team dinners and outings, not to mention the atmosphere in the dressing room, be enhanced or diminished by the presence of the brilliant but controversial batsman? Or had his behaviour during the series against South Africa, when he allegedly sent disloyal text messages about the England skipper, placed him beyond the pale? For some time, Pietersen has seemed not so much a team player as a brand – KP Ltd – which is huge in India. Earlier in 2012, he signed a £1.3m contract with the Premier League Delhi Daredevils, and his desire to play a full IPL season in 2013, thereby missing several England engagements, is partly responsible for his estrangement from the England squad.
There have been personality clashes on England cricket tours before, and some, such as David Gower’s rift with Graham Gooch during the Ashes tour of Australia in 1990-91, have soured the whole trip. Gooch felt that Gower, for all his talent, was a playboy who didn’t work hard enough. Gower, a wonderfully stylish player, thought Gooch’s approach was priggish and joyless, and, to liven things up, he buzzed the England team with a Tiger Moth as they played a dull warm-up match against Queensland.
The fan in me would love to see Kevin Pietersen playing Test cricket again for England, if at all possible. But the team’s successes in recent years have stemmed in no small part from their band-of-brothers ethos and, even if selected, it remains to be seen how popular or permanent KP’s “reintegration” into the England dressing room will be. With or without Pietersen, I fear England will struggle against the Indian spin bowlers, and I’m backing the home side to win the Test series by a 2-1 margin at 9-2 with Ladbrokes.