If England are to defy the odds and retain the Ashes in Australia this winter, then their players must retain the freedom to make their own choices on and off the field, says Kevin Pietersen, even in the wake of the incident in Bristol last month that led to the arrest and suspension of star allrounder Ben Stokes.
Pietersen, who experienced the highs and lows of Ashes cricket in the course of his six campaigns at home and away, was famously sacked by the ECB in the wake of the 5-0 defeat on England’s last tour of Australia in 2013-14, despite having been their top-scorer in the course of a sorry campaign.
And while he fears that Stokes’ potential absence is likely to be a fatal blow to England’s hopes of emulating the last successful Ashes tourists in 2010-11, he is adamant that the team will be beaten before a ball is bowled if they fail to embrace the full experience of a tour of Australia.
“When we had the great tour Down Under in 2010-11, we had the most incredible couple of nights out at the start of that tour, which brought the team so close together,” Pietersen told ESPNcricinfo in an exclusive interview. “Before the 2013 trip, we were talking about having similar nights out to get the team bonded, but obviously it was too intense going into the 2013 series and those sort of opportunities didn’t present themselves – or weren’t allow them to present themselves – which caused issues.
“I know that it sounds so stupid, but if you go and get hammered as a team on a night out – as senior and junior players – so long as you don’t do something ridiculously stupid, the bonds you can create there are better than any ridiculous sessions you can do in the forest in Germany. Those are the little bits and pieces of cricketing nous and sense of understanding a team that were good on that tour but horrendous in 2013-14.”
This time around, England’s management has opted against any overt exercises in team bonding, such as the aforementioned trip to Bavaria in 2010-11 or a much-lampooned SAS training weekend in Stoke that preceded their departure four years ago. However, the issue has rarely been more in the spotlight than in the wake of the events outside Mbargo nightclub on September 25, when Stokes was allegedly caught on video throwing punches at two men in a street brawl.
Regardless of the ramifications for Stokes, on this tour or beyond, Pietersen believes that the incident underlines the importance of personal responsibility for sportsmen who find themselves caught in the public eye, especially in the age of social media when camera-phones are ubiquitous.
“Personal responsibility has grown men in any industry, I think,” he said. “It is key to your success and your development, because I think you can develop more as a person if you do things yourself.
“I wanted to make mistakes to learn, but people always knew I was fully committed and that I trained my absolute backside off at the ground, and also away from the ground, and that’s how I would definitely like a team that I was involved in to behave.
“It’s your job and your career, and if you mess it up, there will be another one on the conveyor belt that’s going to come in and take your place. So, if I was the leader of a group of players, I’d give them that rope and say if you’re going to go hang yourself, you’ll hang yourself.
“You can go out as long as you’re sensible, it doesn’t matter. You have to enjoy your career, you’re away from home so much, you’re not in your own bed. You cannot just be ‘hotel, team coach, dressing room, practice, play, journalism, hotel, food’ … you just can’t do it, it’s just not in you. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to pick your moments, and when you pick them, you take that pink ticket and you have a good go.
“Do whatever you want, but don’t get caught drinking at 2 o’clock on the morning before a game, don’t get caught fighting in the streets, don’t get caught doing things you shouldn’t be doing before the games and, in particular, before training days, because those always stood me in good stead for when I went into battle.
“If you lost form and didn’t play well then I would support you because none of us are going to get things right all the time. But if you go and damage the reputation of my side, then I’d have issues.”
The need for England to intensify the bonds in this year’s squad is heightened by the imbalance of experience in their ranks, particularly in the batting. Their line-up for the first Test at Brisbane on November 23 could feature as many as three Ashes debutants in the top five, with Mark Stoneman likely to open alongside Alastair Cook, James Vince earmarked to bat at No. 3, and Dawid Malan incumbent in the middle order following a pair of half-centuries in the series win against West Indies in the summer.
“I think without [Joe] Root or Cook, that batting order is incredibly weak, incredibly inexperienced, and with Stokes maybe not going, I mean, it’s even worse,” Pietersen said. “People say that ‘one bloke doesn’t make a team’, well, I mean one bloke who bowls 140kph, get important wickets, can hit 100 off 70 balls, can hit 200 off 100 balls in a Test match, and also, more importantly, catches everything at slip off the spinner, is a massive player. A massive, massive player.”
“The opening batting with Cook, that worries me,” he added. “No. 3 worries me, I think Root should bat at three, five worries me, six will worry me too if Stokes doesn’t go. I mean there’s a lot of numbers in that batting order. I’ve been in Australia this week, and they are very confident of their chances and they talk of some very big gaps in the English team.”
Asked if Stokes’ absence would be a fatal blow to England’s chances, Pietersen responded: “Yep. A massive, massive blow. A huge, huge blow. A lot of TV channels and all the news channels [in Australia] are running stories about how England are going to miss Stokes.
“But we never know. I mean I’m sitting here now, it’s an autumnal day here in London and we’re talking about England getting whacked. I’ve said that before and they’ve won. So I don’t know, but hopefully the cricket is good. I’m going to be commentating on the series and I just don’t want to see a one-sided affair like our last trip.”