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.
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.
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.
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.