On Kevin Pietersen, Conformity and Team Success

Let’s take the ECB statement at face value. It reads like an amicable parting of ways between the employer and the employee. Kevin Pietersen will be 34 years old in June, and is in his 10th year of international cricket. That’s relatively young in terms of international careers, especially for a top order batsman, to be let go.

Apparently, the decision of the England management, including the selectors, to not avail the services any longer of only the most electric English batsman on this side of David Gower was “unanimous” and “tough”. That must mean every single person in that decision making body was absolutely convinced that Pietersen cannot have any further role in the future of English cricket. Any less conviction than that wouldn’t make the decision unanimous.

The reason given in the statement is the need to rebuild the English team after the debacle down under, and the first (and seemingly the only) step is to get Pietersen out of the England set up despite his brilliance as a cricketer. Paul Downton, the new Managing Director said, “Clearly this was a tough decision because Kevin has been such an outstanding player for England as the fact that he is the country’s leading run scorer in international cricket demonstrates. However everyone was aware that there was a need to begin the long term planning after the Australia tour. Therefore we have decided the time is right to look to the future and start to rebuild not only the team but also team ethic and philosophy.”

Fair enough. However, if long term planning is what’s on ECB’s mind, Pietersen’s 104 Tests isn’t that much more than Ian Bell’s 98 Tests and Alastair Cook’s 102. Cook is 29 and is about to complete his 8th year of international cricket and Bell is soon to be 32, and will be completing his 10 years in international cricket as well. James Anderson will be 32 soon, and is already in his 12th year of international cricket. How about Michael Carberry who is 33 years old? Are ECB putting all of the above on notice as well? I highly doubt it.

How long is long term? 4 years? Next Ashes series at home? Away? World cup? Even if ECB were looking at a 4-year term, Pietersen would still only be 37. He is currently 22nd in the list of all time highest Test run getters. Of the 21 ahead of him, only 5 are active players, of which 3 are on the wrong side of 36. Sehwag, who’s only 35 has struggled for form even at domestic level. Only Graeme Smith is comparable to Pietersen at 33 years of age.

Of the 16 retired players ahead of Pietersen, only Gower played his last Test before he turned 36. There was drama surrounding that one too, wasn’t it?

If history is anything to go by, great players play well in to their thirties, and generally retire after they hit 37. Unless the ECB management somehow know that Pietersen’s best as a batsman is well behind him, the line about planning for the future doesn’t really add up. After all, Pietersen scored the most runs by an English player in Australia, didn’t he? Considering in the next 12 months, England will be taking part in the World T20 in Bangladesh and World Cup in Australia/New Zealand, it is beyond any cricketing logic that Pietersen wouldn’t figure in any combination of best XI that the English selectors can put together.

That brings us to the other aspect of the statement: “[W]e have decided the time is right to look to the future and start to rebuild not only the team but also team ethic and philosophy.”

Since ECB haven’t volunteered any more information, we can only assume that they felt that the team ethic and philosophy was in need of rebuilding. It means it did fall apart in Australia. What was the team ethic and philosophy before it fell apart? How has it become different? How do they expect to rebuild it by having Pietersen away from the England set up? What role did he play in it falling apart? Was it a series of events or any singular event that caused it? After all, Pietersen was reintegrated after the text message scandal of Summer 2012. One would think England was starting off with a clean slate in their relationship with Pietersen since then.

We do not have the answers to those questions, as the parties concerned aren’t divulging any. There are accounts published on several news websites as to what may have happened towards the end of the Ashes that hastened this decision but none of it official. Let’s stay away from the rumor mill for the time being.

But what we can deduce from that statement is that ECB believes Pietersen was central in the falling apart of the England team’s ethic and philosophy, and its attempts at rebuilding can only begin with Pietersen out of the way, and therefore, they have ended the career of a batsman that, in mood, could conjure up visions of Viv himself.

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Team ethic and philosophy is a fancy way of saying “Team chemistry”, a vague notion of camaraderie of professional sportsmen praised for its abundance – in success, and blamed for the lack of it – in failure. It is just a convenient, or lazy if you will, narrative to distill the fortunes of a team to an unquantifiable entity.

Let’s take the case of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal during their time with the Los Angeles Lakers. It became widely known that they couldn’t stand each other and yet they played together long enough to win three NBA titles. Shaq was let go by LAL management as they hedged their bets with Kobe Bryant and replaced Shaq with a cast of very good players, which led them to two more NBA titles. By letting go of Shaq, Lakers front office achieved a semblance of unity in their locker room but did not sacrifice in their ability to win championships, as they still had Kobe (arguably is one of the 10 best players ever to pick up a basketball) and a supporting cast of All Stars including Pau Gasol. They didn’t settle for mediocrity.

Pietersen was the one true great batsman in a line up of attritional artists and Ian Bell. By letting go of him, with no plausible replacement that can match his batting genius, England is sacrificing greatness for conformity. A talent like Pietersen is a rare commodity, and a valuable one at that. They don’t come around often.

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What can conformity achieve? It ensures a top-down approach to decision making and the team management lays down the law as to how the players will behave, on and off the pitch. It keeps away players from the set up that may not align with the requirements of the group, no matter how talented they are. My way or the highway is the creed. It makes the system rigid, inflexible to the changing demands of modern sport. It is successful as long as everything plays along predictable lines but when faced with an unorthodox challenge, it is left groping for solutions. John F. Kennedy was addressing the United Nations on global peace efforts when he said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth” but I do believe the essence of that statement applies to the current situation appropriately.

Without Pietersen, England will still be a pretty decent team beating the teams they should, and losing to teams they should be losing to. Is that what ECB are aiming for their team to achieve in the next 4 years?

England management may now have players who might be more than happy to sit around the campfire and sing their corporate Kumbayah, but it can’t help them win cricket matches as great talent wins matches. Cricket is a fiercely individualistic sport masquerading as team endeavor. Teams with better individual talents will win more often than not against a team of BFFs of lesser talent.

Shane Warne never really got over the slight of getting dropped by Steve Waugh but he was a champion bowler, with magic in his fingers and wrist, and the team he was in had few more like him, and yet, they won. A lot. Would they have been any more successful if the players actually got along? Probably not.

Isn’t also quite interesting that the Pietersen being the “cancer in the team” stories start making the rounds when England is not doing well? That makes me believe success breeds camaraderie, for what its worth, but camaraderie doesn’t always lead to success.

Pietersen will go on to play T20 leagues and swell his bank accounts. He has played and achieved enough remarkable things on the field in England colors to be globally acknowledged as a bonafide great. Right now, England needs him more than he needs England, but ECB doesn’t think so. It’s their loss.

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Reggie Jackson signed one of the biggest contracts in professional sport, when he turned up to play for the New York Yankees in 1977. Reggie thought of himself as “the straw that stirred the drink” which upset a lot of his Yankee teammates. He had a reputation for not getting along with his teammates with his prior team the Oakland A’s, often getting in to fights. Yet, George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees, brought him to New York because it gave his team a greater chance to win. Reggie would be nicknamed “Mr. October” because he delivered when it mattered (during the playoffs in the month of October), hit 3 back-to-back home runs in a World Series game, was named the MVP of the 1977 World Series that the Yankees won, and has since been enshrined into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. The Yankee players found a way to get along with Reggie, because nothing succeeds like success.

When you win, you have straight A’s in chemistry. When you lose, it’s all F’s.

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7 Responses to On Kevin Pietersen, Conformity and Team Success

  1. Pingback: They’re Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace | Down At Third Man

  2. zugzwang says:

    There are some things about this that resonate, but not all. No doubt, the Flower regime was too hierarchical, regimented, and too “moneyball”. Pretty clearly, Cook is an uninspiring captain whose batting form has deserted him under supreme pressure. But the analogies with baseball and basketball teams (and, implicitly, T20 league teams) fail a simple test, which is that these analogies apply only to teams that can play the transfer markets.
    National cricket teams may be accused, as England frequently are, of being too receptive to flags of convenience. But they haven’t the luxury of building a team around the difficult star, because they have nowhere to go for the other 10 members, apart from whatever journeymen (and some artists) who actually constitute the home talent pool at the time. When the star not only fails to deliver, but fails in an ostentatiously self-obsessed way, and slags off management in an unexpected manner that apparently shocks the rest of the team, it makes it really tough to see how a national team can be made to revolve around said star. If you believe the Prior/Bresnan/Atherton account of the fateful team meeting (rather than the pre-emptive Piers Morgan account) you are likely to conclude that the star has reached his sell-by date.

    • karachikhatmal says:

      Your point about the transfer market is very good, but I feel it further reinforces the feeling that you have even less of a choice to drop by far and away your most explosive player. You can’t buy a replacement.

      To respond to what you say about the self-obsession, I would like to point out some Pakistani examples. Unlike England, Pakistan has completely dysfunctional institutions, and very few people who choose rational outcomes. Yet I can immediately think of two great examples from the past and present – Imran & Javed and Afridi & Misbah. The latter don’t get along and their symbolic differences are played up a lot but both have got on with each other when they have had to. Imran and Javed were a far better example, each personifying the two diverging elite groups in the country with Javed representing the one which had lost its prestige and Imran part of the ascendant elite. Their ethnic backgrounds are on massively violent faultlines and they pretty much hated each other viscerally, not just off the field but on it too. Imran’s declaration with Javed on 280 is *still* an issue 30 years later. Yet this happened amongst two players who continued to excel and eventually become world champions. In fact, both Wasim and Waqar – who fell out quickly and constantly meddled in each other’s career – have spoken about their desire to constantly one-up each other when bowling. If a team as crazy as Pakistan can pull it off, surely the English set up could have at the least taken inspiration from it?

      In fact, I think this is the problem with the English side. There is no one in it who is of the same quality as Pietersen – he has no nemesis. The fear is that he has gotten too big for his boots without anyone else to act as a counterweight. Otherwise, teams often use both positive and negative energies to act as catalysts towards victory.

      • zugzwang says:

        I almost wish there were ethnic fault lines or personal rivalries in the English cricket team, as it might well be productive, and certainly more colourful than the dysfunctional jelly seen in Australia this winter. One cannot be certain, as an outsider, but it does not appear that the players even conceive of themselves as engaged in a creative rivalry, as with Waqar and Wasim; the bowling unit seems more like a workers’ cooperative (and this unity has been very successful until now). Since central contracts were introduced, members of the wider squad don’t even seem to think of themselves as competing for places. The only person who had been made to think of himself that way, Nick Compton, was ejected pretty quickly.

        In days gone by, our substitute for Pakistani ethnic divisions was the Class Warfare embodied within the team by the distinction between amateurs and professionals, of course. But class distinctions in England are now very blurred and anyway most England cricketers (including KP) are privately educated middle class, so the boundaries include rather than divide them. They used to make fun of Strauss for being a bit grander (Radley), and that probably worked against Compton (Harrow). But that’s all.

        Fundamentally, the team members see themselves as engaged in a cooperative endeavour, and mutual reliance is more their watchward than creative tension. That means anyone who does not buy in to that ethic is regarded a subverting the team. This would be the same even if there were a real rival for the role of leading batsman (at times Cook and Bell have significantly outscored Pietersen for longish periods, but that is not quite the same thing, of course).

        • karachikhatmal says:

          I would like to start off by congratulating you. I have had many online debates on this matter and few have been as clear and coherent as this one.

          I would largely agree with everything that you’ve said, and my only question would be the interpretation of this sentence: “the team members see themselves as engaged in a cooperative endeavour, and mutual reliance is more their watchward than creative tension.”

          In my opinion mutual reliance is possible with a player like KP, especially on the field. It is an opinion which the ECB doesn’t seem to share, and in of itself that is fine. But in the context of this issue, it feels like a post-rationalisation. After such a shambolic tour, it feels weird that the only debate has been about KP and Flower. Many people have pointed out that Cook – the investment in whose captaincy has been made the paramount concern – isn’t a proven captain as yet. Moreover, Ian Bell and Cook’s series were worse than KP’s. How has the inquest ended up on one man? Perhaps there were reasons for it which we are not aware of (and there is a LOT kept in the dark) but keeping in mind how English cricket (and other sports, notably football) have dealt with mavericks, it feels like a recourse to what they knew best. In either case, thank you for the illuminating discussion.

          • zugzwang says:

            A pleasure to debate with you. My sense is that ten years of intermittent tribulation (where Pietersen’s opposite numbers rotate, but he is constant) take away much of the credibility from the “post-rationalisation” hypothesis. My thought about mutual reliance was more directed to your interesting idea that antipathy can be productive, which I felt was more plausible in a more individualistic culture than that of the England team.

          • thecricketcouch says:

            If only all people argued as politely and thoughtfully as you two did… well played.

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