England are now so good, they can admit out loud that certain Test matches mean more than others regardless of what they charge for the tickets, the staging fee or the TV rights, and they can divest themselves of their best T20 batsman, a man in no small part responsible for their only ever international title, in the pincers of contractual small-print. Either that, or hubris is beginning to set in.
They might go to Sri Lanka for the title defence without their second-best T20 batsman too, because that is Owais Shah and they don't seem to like him much, either. But the great meritocracy of sport sends its messages whether they are acknowledged or not and on Shah the free market has spoken. Pietersen aside, he is the one successful English player in the IPL. He has been bought on four different occasions by four different teams, and this year got his first decent run, for Rajasthan Royals. He played 13 games and made 340 runs at almost 38, at a strike rate of 132. That put him inside the top 20 batters in the tournament. In the Big Bash, where he played for Hobart, he averaged 70 at a rate of 150 over eight games.
At the crease he is a magnificent oddity, a one-off, a wired bundle of quirks and ticks, eyes wide and brain burning with the sheer range of possibilities he brings to each delivery. Last year he played the shot of the season at Chelmsford, a defensive prod that went over the stand. With his limber wrists, he might just have easily got the same ball through fine leg, or slipped it past third man. Equally, on another day, it might have struck him plumb in front, or been popped back to the bowler from a leading edge. In attitude, in approach, in appearance, he is an enigma; in short, everything that England distrusts.
The other day, he came in for Essex in a CB40 match with the game won and Ravi Bopara on a hundred. He played incredibly straight; his bat looked like a barn door. He flicked one to the boundary, took a few singles and did nothing really extraordinary, but that was sort of the point: even in so little there was something about it that illuminated Bopara's conventionality. Bopara is very good, and his desire and attitude deserves respect. But the shimmer of something extra.... no, it was all down the other end.
More than any other format, because it is condensed and amplified, T20 cricket needs that something extra, some dynamism from players who will walk the tightrope. Pietersen did, Eoin Morgan does, and so does Shah. It's a quality that's most effective and magnetic when the player has learned to control it, to bring it out when it's needed, and Shah seems to be at that point now.
He should replace KP, but he won't. In fact, they should both play, but neither will. Last year, in the post about Shah's shot of the season at Chelmsford, I wrote that he had 'a racehorse temperament' that had stopped him playing more for England. This was disputed in an anonymous first-person response underneath. I have no idea whether it was genuine or not (it's still there, if you scroll down) but I regret writing it now anyway: it's too glib a description of a complex player. Shah has made his case in the arena where it counts. Wonder if England are going to notice?