Where do you stand on Scottish Independence? Are you for or against? Dredging the Somerset Levels – yes or no? These dilemmas pale into insignificance against the big question of the week –Kevin Pietersen – sack or stay?
He is England’s top run scorer in all forms of cricket – including being the best of a bad bunch in this winter’s Ashes debacle. He is undoubtedly charismatic, confident and colourful, but was he also dodgy, difficult and disruptive?
Nor is disputing his talent. And this is more than substantiated by the statistics. He is not one of the long list of promising county run-scorers who never quite did it for England – Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hicks or Frank Hayes. He is not the cricketing equivalent of Stan Bowles or Matt le Tissier who never quite realised their potential at the highest level. No – his statistics knock the rest of the team for a big six over long-on. He has scored a total of 8181 test runs for England at an average of 47.28. And now they don’t want him to score anymore.
No England batsman has scored more international runs. Gooch (the batting coach in Australia this winter), David Gower, Robin Smith and Graham Thorpe all averaged under 45.
But Pietersen’s singe failing was to have a lower batting average than the personification of perfection himself – Sir Geoffrey Boycott. He scored 67 fewer runs than Pietersen, but averaged more – 47.72, in a similar number of matches. Clearly this situation could not have been allowed to continue.
You might expect a batsman with an equivalent record to respect and acknowledge Pietersen’s ability and contribution. Here is what Boycott had to say:-
“He has given his wicket away four times out of six. Each time they set a trap for him and he falls for it. He is a mug and the Aussies are laughing.”
“’I do not agree that you have to let him play the way he wants. When the best player in the team makes stupid mistakes, just think what that does to the morale of the rest of the players”
And so Kevin was sacked – for playing the way that he plays rather than the way Sir Geoffrey and other less talented people wanted him to play. This being, of course, the same Sir Geoffrey who accumulated runs at his own slow steady pace, irrespective of the needs of the game and the team – and also developed a reputation for getting his fellow-batters run out in pursuit of his own average.
Pietersen is (I almost typed “was” – I live in hope) a natural stroke-player. He is at his best when he is attacking the bowling, scoring quickly and fluently. Despite this, there are times when he has knuckled down, slowed down, played within himself and squeezed out the runs. He has not been consistently reckless, throwing his bat at every ball.
Like the rest of the England team in Australia this winter (Cook, Bell, Trott, Prior et al) Pietersen played some unnecessary shots under pressure and (as the saying goes) “gave his wicket away”. If we sacked every batsman who got himself out with a poor shot, there would be nobody left. And Boycott is the first to criticise a batsman who stops scoring in a game. Pietersen often agonised as to whether to play an attacking or a defensive game. He was at his best as an attacking player – and that is how he scored most of his runs. The problem is that that when you get out to an attacking shot, it appears reckless.
I think the whole situation is a classic lesson in leadership and team dynamics. We see it in businesses every day. Management struggles with a member of staff who makes a mistakes and – here is the real crime – fails to show contrition and humbly seek their expert help in overcoming their weaknesses. It is a greater struggle when the individual is particularly talented. Which of course most individuals are – in their own way.
So the management try to “correct” or “coerce” the talent into shape, setting increasingly stringent guidelines and objectives. This is a big mistake. It may appear to work for a while, but ultimately it stifles the individual flair and asphyxiates their potential. They may reluctantly play along for a while, but will inevitably become bored, resentful and disruptive.
People perform at their best when they are given space to maximise their individual talents, enthusiasm and personalities for the good of the group. The failing of management is to assume the only way to play is the way “I used to play”. The fallacy that the management knows best when the very reason you have a team in place is because – between them – the team knows best.
The accusation against Pietersen was that he did not always play “for the good of the team”. Hence the statement this week from the management that they wanted to rebuild the team and a new team ethic. Of course a team has to work as a team – support each other, challenge each other, and have the same objectives. The team ethos is important. There were rumours of tensions and fractures in the dressing room in Australia. Visit the dressing room of any failing team and you will often find the same. Losers make poor bedfellows.
And here is the rub for me. Cricket is a team game. Pietersen was accused of playing for himself rather than the team. But when you are in the middle facing an aggressive bowler you are on your own. Whether you are playing for yourself or the team, it amounts to the same thing. You want to score runs and not get out. The individual and team objectives align.
The only other member of your team you can vaguely influence is the guy at the other end, and only then in the call as to whether to run or not. Remember that Mr Boycott?
What we have really seen is a jostling for position and a battle of egos. Pietersen is labelled as thinking he is bigger than the team. In reality, his talent and self-belief are threatening the management. Exhibit B – Alex Ferguson and David Beckham. The talent needs to remember his place, get back into his box. If he doesn’t – there is only one winner. In a power battle the management always wins, not because they are right, but simply because they can.
So for me – the whole sorry affair is a failure of leadership. The management tried to manage when they should have been leading. Building a team of personalities and characters, individuals with different styles and ways of playing, not a team of robots. Being courageous enough to accommodate the maverick. Clearly they didn’t have the wherewithal to do this. So in the way of all failing managers, they externalises the problem, blame someone else, remove the “problem” and exonerate themselves.
This is their big mistake. Putting aside the sheer unfairness of ending Pietersen’s career at 33 for no tangible or explainable misdemeanour, they have removed 47 runs off every England innings. Which given our recent performances is tantamount to suicide. It’s hard to see where those runs are going to come from. There is of course – statistically – only one answer to that. Bring back Sir Geoffrey. That’s what I say.