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Moment that mattered: Australia win the ashes

England's Kevin Pietersen reacts as he leaves the field after losing his wicket for 18 runs during day two of the first Ashes Test at The Gabba, Brisbane, Australia.


“England’s cricketers were utterly, remorselessly thrashed in the 2013-14 Ashes, by opponents whom they had comfortably beaten just months previously. Mitchell Johnson, the former butt of preening Barmy Army songs, grew a moustache, bowled like a vengeful volcano, and ran through England’s batting faster than an undercooked chicken vindaloo through a delicately-stomached pensioner

The English authorities’ response was one of the oddest defenstrations in sporting history – to sack Kevin Pietersen [above], the brilliant, inconsistent, thrilling, and opinion-splitting England batsman. Pietersen himself comprehensively failed in the series, despite being England’s leading run-scorer – as accolades go this was roughly equivalent to being Freddy Krueger’s prettiest selfie – and England could have made a legitimate case for omitting him for reasons of his cricketing form.

But, in the aftermath of what was, arguably (and those arguments could be made with plenty of supporting statistics), England’s worst Ashes performance of all time, a clean break was deemed necessary. As a result, Pietersen was Trotskied into retirement in the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) moral spring clean.

A press release was issued, anti-explaining the situation in barely comprehensible terms, laced with vague hints and innuendo, and making a potent bid for Communication of the Year from the International Foundation for Mealy-Mouthed Obfuscation.

The essential thrust of the official explanation was: “He’s been a naughty boy. But we’re not going to tell you how naughty.  Or exactly what naughtinesses were perpetrated.” Perhaps the ECB’s reluctance to tell the full story suggests that it would not reflect well on the England hierarchy – after all, many children become naughty due to inattentive, careless parenting.

It was certainly true that Pietersen and coach Andy Flower had been getting on like a house on fire – in other words, they urgently needed outside help, but the damage was already irreparable, and the resulting mess was going to require a comprehensive deep clean. The only difference was that a “house on fire” at least ends up with some Ashes.  Unlike the England cricket team last winter.

But in the absence of any actual facts justifying the jettisoning of a possibly-fading but still potent cricketing force, people could only imagine that Pietersen simply must have been doing some truly terrible things. Perhaps he had been burning effigies of early 20th-century England legend Sir Jack Hobbs in the dressing room. Or spiking captain Alastair Cook’s morning cocoa with a mind-altering, trance-inducing narcotic to make him think:  “must – miss – straight – ball”. Perhaps KP had been sacrificing endangered panda cubs in the dressing room, and letting the blood splatter all over everyone else’s kit.

In the end, some months later, ECB chief Paul Downton claimed that Pietersen had seemed “disengaged”. Ordinarily, you might think that an appropriate response to disengagement on the sporting field would be something between a mild telling-off and a three-minute stint with a sports psychologist. But Pietersen is not ordinary, nor does he provoke ordinary reactions, and nor had England suffered an “ordinary” winter.

Pietersen, for his part, claimed he was “as good as gold” during the tour. The ECB, no doubt enthusiastic fans of the international markets, evidently assumed that what he meant by those words was: “I am no longer as valuable as I used to be a couple of years ago, and do not represent a sound long-term investment.”

Perhaps England will prosper without him (in the short term, at least – the visiting Sri Lankans and Indians this summer offer two of Test cricket’s friendlier bowling attacks). Perhaps Pietersen will play for England again one day. There have been stranger recalls. Pietersen’s previous one, for example, just months after sending uncomplimentary messages about his own captain to opposition players.

England have deprived themselves of one of their best players, with a 50-over World Cup looming. England fans have been deprived of their most exciting batsman, a player of brilliance and fragility, who can destroy opponents with calculating intelligence, but who can also play shots as brainless as a grapefruit. With ticket prices for some England matches at around £100 a day, public disgruntlement is understandable.  Pietersen himself has been deprived of the international stage, by which cricketers are defined. The whole sorry saga reflects well on no-one involved.

Andy Zaltzman will perform ‘Satirist for Hire’ at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival from 13th – 24th August and tours the show this autumn. Follow him on Twitter @ZaltzCricket

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