I (Martin), having been otherwise occupied with another little sporting event (or, more accurately, massive Olympic-sized occasion) occurring in England over the last couple of weeks, have not been faithful to my plan to blog on every day of every Test match between the first- and second-placed Test-cricket nations in the world. The Second Test match ended in a draw, which means that neither side could force a victory within the five days of the competition. Actually, South Africa offered up a sporting declaration in their second innings (leaving England to score around 250 runs in about the same number of balls). England made a go of it, but in the end lost too many wickets and batted out the remaining time to end 100 or so runs short.
The Test match was thrown into relief by England batsman Kevin Pietersen‘s activities both on and off the field. In the game itself, he hit an aggressive and imperious 149 in England’s first innings that transformed a difficult situation for the home side into a commanding one, on which they failed to capitalize. Pietersen has the rare ability to turn a game on its head and dominate the bowling in a way that’s perhaps unequaled in world cricket. He’s also temperamental, a curious combination of massive and fragile ego, and—all protestations of his commitment to teamwork aside—clearly aware that many people see him as the star of England’s show.
This facet of his complex genius has been on display off the field, as he tries to balance his box-office money-making potential, his family life, and the crazy demands of England’s schedule over the next eighteen months. In the last few months he’s (1) announced his wish to retire from all forms of one-day cricket; (2) indicated that he may not play Test cricket again; and (3) contritely stated that he’s changed his mind and wants to play all forms of the game again. Apparently, his antics have alienated some in the England dressing-room, and there even seem to be dark mutterings that the South African–born Pietersen may be overly chummy with the members of the team against which he’s meant to be competing.
The result is that England go into the Third (and final) Test match on Thursday mightily distracted. England need to win this game to retain their number-one status. The management have dropped Pietersen from the squad for insubordination, perhaps hoping that England’s team will want to show their best player that they can get along without him very well. Nonetheless, it’s a huge gamble: it’s as if your star slugger had just hit 4 for 5 to improve his average to .360 and you told him to go back to the minor leagues to cool off.
England have been here before: Pietersen wasn’t in the squad that thrashed the Australians at one-day cricket earlier this summer, and the team performed better without a similarly mercurial, crowd-pleasing, and oxygen-sucking player like Andrew Flintoff than with him. Cricket needs its personalities, but the team must come first; Pietersen is a world-class performer at the height of his powers, who could command large appearance fees; but he signed a contract and South Africa (which he left because he couldn’t get into the nation’s side over a decade ago) probably wouldn’t want him back. They’re so good they don’t need him.