The odd couple. It was an incongruous sight on the flight to Mohali to see Kevin Pietersen sitting next to Mike Brearley. Brearley, looking every inch the university professor – white-haired, scruffy blue sweater, cords and Hush Puppies – next to the personification of the modern international sportsman, Pietersen, wearing his Vodafone (but not for much longer) tracksuit, noise-emitting earphones and iPod, playing, no doubt, his pop-star wife’s latest offering.
Can there have been two more different England captains? Brearley: quiet, contemplative, bookish, tactically supreme but always aware of having to justify his place as a batsman. Pietersen: outwardly confident and brash, the best player in the team by some distance but learning the ‘captaincy thing’, as he once referred to it, as he goes along.
With his ‘degree in people’ (something Rodney Hogg, the former Australian fast bowler, attributed to Brearley) nobody would have been better suited to accompanying Pietersen on the long flight north. Brearley would have trodden carefully, knowing exactly how Pietersen would have been feeling on the day after the defeat in the first Test match in Madras. In itself, becoming only the third England captain after Norman Yardley and David Gower to declare and lose is not a problem, but having the fourth highest successful run chase in history against your name is not great for the CV.
I chatted to Brearley on the morning of the fifth day in Madras and we both agreed that it was the kind of day you lived for as a captain, the knowledge that you could make a difference but also that awful, nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that you might mess it up. So Brearley would have been aware of the angst that Pietersen would have been feeling on that flight. Equally, there would have been no better brain for Pietersen to tap into for an insight into how he might have done things differently. It would have been good to talk.
Had I been sitting in Brearley’s place, what would I have said in reply to the inevitable question, ‘How did I do?’? I would have first recalled the numerous days when I felt I got things wrong. How could I not have helped to find a way to dismiss Danny Morrison, cricket’s biggest rabbit, as he batted for two sessions against us in Auckland in 1997 to save a Test? How did West Indies, on a shocking pitch in Trinidad in 1998, chase successfully on the final day to win? Captaincy is partly about making mistakes. On any given day, a captain will make hundreds of decisions, some more important than others, and he cannot get them all right. The key is to learn but to try not to torment yourself and wonder: ‘What if?’
I don’t think Pietersen got things quite right on the final day in Madras. I felt he was too concerned with saving boundaries at the start. Was this a reflection of England’s caution the day before? Yuvraj Singh, for instance, was allowed to get off the mark with a push to deep point. When Andrew Flintoff, rightly, was brought back to attack him early on, the deep-set field set did not help Pietersen to keep the left-hander on strike.
To give a small example of how the desire to stop boundaries impinged on the need to get wickets: in the first session, Monty Panesar went over the wicket to Sachin Tendulkar to bowl into the rough. There was a man at deep square leg saving the four and one at square leg stopping the single. Fine. Tendulkar tried a risky slog-sweep out of the rough. He missed. Immediately, the square leg went back to deep mid-wicket and the next ball Tendulkar eased it to where the man had been and scampered up the other end.
Tendulkar’s game plan was to play in a risk-free manner, nudging into the gaps, and the ‘in-out’ field (close catchers and boundary savers) allowed him to do this without taking many chances. It was easier, surely, in those conditions to work the ball around rather than hit over the top. As a result, there was never any sense that England had control in the field, the singles flowed and, with a left-hander and right-hander at the crease, this made it difficult for the spinners to settle.
Peter Moores, the head coach, defended Pietersen on the day after the game, reflecting primarily on his positive attitude in returning to India: ‘He remained completely positive about the trip from Day One and that helped us get into a very good mind set,’ said Moores.
Captaincy, for sure, is as much about leadership off the field as tactical nous on it and so far Pietersen has been an outstanding leader of men. Not everything went wrong tactically, either. Pietersen did well as well as he could – staying calm and trying to take the sting out of the situation – under the onslaught from Virender Sehwag on the fourth evening
‘He tried just about everything on that last day, changing the fields, changing the bowlers and on a day like that there are always people going to say you might have done something different,’ said Moores. But did he try everything? Not once, for example, did Graeme Swann bowl round the wicket to Tendulkar. Not once did England veer from the in-out field to a more traditional squeezing field, forcing the batsmen to hit over the top. When you have five sessions to bowl out a team, you want to have come off the park knowing that every option has been exhausted.
Maybe it was written in the stars that Mumbai’s favourite son would hit the winning runs and a less rigid tactical approach would not have made any difference. But as a captain, you still want to feel you got things right. Even so, the biggest lesson Pietersen can learn from defeat is how quickly momentum can change in a Test match and how dangerous it is for a team to retreat into their shell. It is said that the best captains produce teams that play in their image. If England’s meandering fourth-day performance reflected their captain, then Pietersen has been fooling us all along.
But any criticisms of Pietersen’s tactics on the last day should be tempered by the knowledge of how inexperienced he is. The match in Madras was only his second Test in charge. One of the problems identified in the Schofield report after the 5-0 whitewash in Australia in 2006-07, now gathering dust somewhere in the ECB vaults, was one of leadership. Given that the contracted England players play so few county games, there is precious little opportunity for them to gain any meaningful captaincy experience. They come to international cricket fully prepared from a playing point of view; totally unprepared for leadership.
And what help within the set-up can Pietersen expect? As he looks around the team for advice at a sticky moment in the game, who is there to guide him? Paul Collingwood, by his own admission when he stood down from the one-day job, was unsuited to the demands of captaincy; Flintoff has enough on his plate, bowling his overs and those of others, which leaves Andrew Strauss. And on the sidelines, everything is catered for – batting coach, bowling coach, physical conditioners, masseurs, but nobody to help Pietersen in what Brearley called the art of captaincy.
Pietersen has generally made an outstanding start as England captain, but the last day in Madras also illustrated how much he has to learn. There were echoes of Brearley in Pietersen’s performance, but it is the sage’s captaincy, not his batting, that Pietersen must aim to emulate.