This has been a bruising summer for England’s cricketers. First they were shunted from their position as number-one ranked Test nation by South Africa at the same time as they ditched the hugely talented but equally troublesome Kevin Pietersen, then Andrew Strauss, one of England’s most successful Test captains, resigned. Now they must defend their World Twenty20 crown in the stifling heat of Sri Lanka. But it’s not just the conditions that could prove the sticking point in the sub-continent.
“Sri Lanka is one of the hardest places to play in the world because the conditions are so alien,” says former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain. “Slow-turning pitches. Heat and humidity. It’s going to be difficult – especially without Pietersen.”
That name Pietersen again. English cricket has recently tied itself in knots over the South African-born shotmaker, who has split the dressing room with his underhand text messages to the opposition and his very public huffs with the England hierarchy. “We can’t go ten minutes without mentioning him,” Hussain says wryly.
Were England coach Andy Flower and the ECB right to drop him? “Listen, if I were captain, I’d want Pietersen in my side, because in the end all you’re remembered for as a captain is your stats of wins against losses. People won’t remember if Pietersen was playing or not.
“In Twenty20 cricket he was named Player of the Tournament in the Caribbean in 2010. And in the last Test series England played in Sri Lanka in April he smashed them around. In those sorts of conditions, you like your big strong guys to be available, and we will miss him.”
England are arguably weaker without Pietersen, and that puts more pressure on the young stars brought in to score the runs that have been badly lacking at times this summer. “There are some very good players in the squad, the likes of Alex Hales, Craig Kieswetter and Luke Wright,” emphasises Hussain. “Eoin Morgan becomes a doubly important player without Pietersen.
“England need to work out how to get runs when the ball’s starting to turn and grip and you’re a bit hot and sweaty. If they can master that, then they’ve got a chance.”
There are plenty of pitfalls to watch out for as England look to defend their title. The fact that Afghanistan has a team in this tournament at all is a marvel in itself; but if someone like Nasser Hussain is worried about facing them, you know that the cricketing world has turned topsy turvy.
“It’s a great story to see Afghanistan here, but it’s also one that you have to be very watchful of. You can imagine the team talk from captain Stuart Broad before walking out of the door: ‘Don’t take this lot lightly, we’re champions and this is a massive banana skin here!’”
But does the 26-year-old have the authority to carry out his new role? “It’s important that Broad imparts his own captaincy on the team, because we are Twenty20 champions. We would like to go out to Sri Lanka and play like that.”
Hussain himself has the scars to prove that “minnows” often have the skill to catch you out. “I’ve been to Holland twice with England and lost both.”
Whatever England manage to do in this tournament, they know that a winter tour of India is just around the corner. Hussain has no doubts about where the team needs to improve. “We need to go back to basics of getting first-innings runs. If you look at England over the past year or so, especially this summer, they simply didn’t get enough runs in the first innings.”
The issue of a lack of depth in the batting draws us back to KP’s controversial omission from the tour of India. What does Nasser think? “I fully understand, but if I was going to India without Strauss, I’d want Pietersen in my side.”
Nasser Hussain is part of Sky Sports’ commentary team at the World Twenty20.