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10 Aug 2012 00:00
England captain Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen during day two of the second Test between England and South Africa at Headingley. (Gareth Copley, Getty Images)
Cricket teams throughout the ages have been filled with contrary characters and it is fair to say that some of the greatest teams of any generation have contained players who could barely speak to each other on the field, let alone off it.
One of the more remarkable examples in recent times was the strained relationship between Australia's Shane Warne and the man upon whom he relied more than any other for a helping hand in his dismissals, wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist. Opposite poles in terms of character, they had no time for the way each other conducted their private lives or interacted with the media, the public and administrators.
One was squeaky clean and genuine, the other squeaky dirty and disingenuous.
But no relationship between two players in international cricket can ever have been as strained as the one playing out between England captain Andrew Strauss and his South African-born star batsman, Kevin Pietersen.
Having kept the media waiting for more than an hour and a half, they eventually spoke – at separate press conferences – following the second Test at Headingley.
Pietersen went first and uttered several bon mots for which he will always be remembered, the best of which was probably: "It's hard being me in the England dressing room." He was never asked whether he had considered being someone else.
Strauss, cleverly, was able to straight-bat every single question referring to what his predecessor had said minutes earlier: "I didn't hear, so I can't comment," he said.
The England captain is the focal point for Pietersen's vitriol, although his relationship with the majority of the other England players is barely any better.
Heaping the pressure
The South Africans are doing their best to stay out of the mess. Graeme Smith was the first to admit that Michael Vaughan's demise as England captain four years ago contributed to the tourists' success, but that was purely cricket-related. Smith respected Vaughan tremendously as a cricketer and a captain (and the feeling was mutual), but that did not stop him heaping the pressure on his rival in the days before his resignation. "Take down the leader and the rest will follow … hopefully!" Smith said a year later.
This time, however, the situation is so embarrassing and awkward that even Smith in his toughest, most square-jawed mood would rather walk on by. Pietersen's demeanour and behaviour reflect a man wholly out of touch with reality. In such circumstances, it is far preferable to keep your distance than contemplate scoring points. It would appear obvious that South Africa's cricketers could do nothing more to accelerate the demise of their opponent's best batsman, so they will not try.
Instead, they are spending the final days before the third Test match doing what coach Gary Kirsten believes will best prepare them for a match that could be the beginning of an era: relaxing and focusing on anything and everything but cricket.
With the Olympic Games being held in London, that has not been hard to do. Several of the squad left the team's countryside base outside Derby to visit the capital this week and Imran Tahir, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Thami Tsolekile were seen visiting Caster Semenya in the athletes' village and Dale Steyn was spotted in the basketball arena.
If there has been one consistent criticism of South African teams over the past decade and a half, it is their inability to keep big matches in perspective. Historically, they have always treated them "differently" to other matches. They are different, of course. You would be an idiot to say that the Lord's Test match is the same as one against Bangladesh in Chittagong. But what good does it do to prepare differently?
Late in his career, Kirsten felt a thrill of delight when playing a match likely to be spoken about and remembered for years to come. He laboured with the difficulty some of his teammates obviously suffered. He vowed, as with many things, that the big-match "vibe" would be something to be cherished when he was a coach, not feared. An avid reader of sports biographies, Kirsten loves the Jack Nicklaus mantra: the more you give yourself the chance, the more chance you have. The Golden Bear won 18 major championships. He came second in just as many and third in half as many.
"If we win the third Test, then we become number one. It's a fabulous incentive. But I'm already looking ahead. If we build this game up to be the most important thing in our lives, then we have a long way to pick ourselves up if things don't go according to plan," said Kirsten. "And this is sport, let's not forget. Things often don't go according to plan!"
But the level of planning and preparation before this tour has been such that it is hard to see England forcing a series-levelling victory. Especially with such a paranoidal schism in their ranks.
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