Pietersen’s exile reflects power coaches now hold over talent
Packing England’s top cricketer of to sun ahead of Ashes is surely management failure
Former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen: banished from the England cricket team due to a “massive trust issue” between him and the England & Wales Cricket Board. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
When the England cricket team starts its attempt to wrestle the Ashes from Australia on Wednesday, England’s most famous cricketer, record run-scorer and former captain will be four thousand miles away in the Caribbean wrestling with the dilemma of which skin factor to use.
But that’s Kevin Pietersen for you, one of those maddening characters fate punishes by having them fart golden thru’ pennies, condemned to lives in which the toast always lands truffle-side up.
Banished from the England cricket team due to a “massive trust issue” between him and the England & Wales Cricket Board, although really its director for cricket, Andrew Strauss, Pietersen is consoling himself with a lucrative contract playing the Caribbean Premier League with the St Lucia Zouks.
That’s St Lucia- the ‘Helen of the West Indies’ – an island paradise so beautiful the English and the French fought over it 14 times but which now only provokes bidding wars over every inch of its priceless real estate.
So boo-hoo for Kevin, a character it’s hard to feel sorry anyway, never mind that he’s getting paid to spend time on an island the rest of the world dreams of having enough money to visit sometime. Even in such exotic circumstances there is compelling evidence Pietersen will blend obtrusively into the local scenery.
Cricket hardly has a more culturally contemporaneous player than the South African star, possessed as he is of the inevitable tattoos, fluctuating hair-styles, pop-star wife and appetite for playing the celebrity game. If there’s attention to be had, it appears Pietersen seeks it.
During the 2006 Ashes, the Aussie players took to politely describing him as “The Ego” and rather less politely “FIGJAM” - as in “F***, I’m Good, Just Ask Me”.
Clever theoretical arguments have been made as to how disasters of world history basically came down to attention-seeking, so what some categorise as self-confidence can seem to others as horribly adolescent self-obsession.
Pieteren’s exclusion from the England team is just the latest illustration of his capacity to divide opinion: where there is rare unanimity though is in terms of his talent which is of a level acknowledged as being almost within reach of the heights the man himself believes it to be.
And that leads us to a dilemma which reverberates beyond cricket to every team sport – where’s the line past which maverick talent turns into trouble that just isn’t worth it?
Strauss’s line in the sand appears to have been a 2012 Test match furore during which texts sent by Pietersen to friends in the opposing South African team became public and the then England captain found himself being described in terms which tabloids call “vile” and which most everyone else dismisses as merely stupid.
Strauss retired from playing soon afterwards, subsequently hardly exhibited a Wildean vocabulary himself when describing his old team-mate as a “c***“ on live telly, and has since pitched up as English cricket’s talking suit, including telling Pietersen in May he won’t be playing international cricket anytime soon.
If that dish tasted sweetly cold, then the potential for the heat to be turned up on Strauss and English cricket in general should Australia do a number on them this summer is obvious: getting beaten is one thing: getting beaten with your best player tallying his banana four thousand miles away is another.
Plenty within cricket clearly believe Pietersen to be a self-involved jackass – he is after all pals with the ridiculous Piers Morgan – one of those talents that believe their sporting prowess absolves them of any requirement to consider any other sensitivity bar their own.
He would hardly be alone in that. Supreme sporting ability can turn even an inherently modest head. So assimilating that ability into a team environment can be an onerous task, especially since Pietersen has been condemned as a disruptive dressing-room influence in the past.
But the clue’s in the job description – manager. No one pretends the job of keeping a lid on a dressing-room is easy. It never has been. But that used to be the job and not being able to accommodate talent into a team used to be an admission of failure, an admission which is becoming increasingly rare no matter what the sport.
To an unprecedented degree it now seems playing talent revolves around the coach rather than the other way around, a dramatic revolution in a power game which increasingly seems to be skewing in favour of the suit on the sideline.
Thus it is Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Martin O’Neill’s Ireland, Jim Gavin’s Dubs: mere media shorthand in one way, but one which increasingly feeds into a culture of control rooted in coaching self-interest rather than finding ways for individuality to flourish within a team.
It has become particularly prevalent in the GAA despite, or maybe because of, its amateur ethos: this coaching impulse to be seen to be in control coated in a veneer of getting everybody to “buy in” which is often little more than some egotistical ponzi-scheme unable to cope with even the merest hint of difference.
Managing surely involves best using the resources at a coach’s disposal. Pietersen might be a pain in the arse to deal with but who’s more likely to win England the Ashes – the pain in the arse player or the smooth suit in the stands?
Strauss says there is a massive trust issue with his former teammate, and no doubt there are any number of coaching bibles full of jargon about the importance of trust and team spirit. It’s surely a failure of management though when the only solution is to pack playing talent off to the sun in order to maintain control.