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Also-rans

 

I probably have to explain; provide a little background.

I am talking about cricket. Recently, a decent enough England team toured Australia. Of the 13 games played England lost twelve, and most importantly they lost all five of the test matches, and not by any small margins. Their key number three batsmen went home with a stress related illness, their key spinner retired mid series and now, upon returning to the UK, their number four batsmen, Kevin Pietersen, has been sacked.

I have never seen Pietersen play and can only rely on reading the Cricinfo commentary and news reports on his performances; it seem unanimous that he is one of the finest batsmen England have had in the last thirty years. His sacking has split opinion and it is certainly not related to his performance on the last tour, but is to do with 'lack of trust'; he does have a history of problematic relationships with teammates. However, to put it in more common terms, it would be like Barcelona sacking Messi; England do not have another batsman of that ability to replace him.

I must admit I do not like Pietersen - he is too arrogant like for my liking - and whilst good he is not that good, certainly not as good as believes himself to be. That said, my opinion may well have changed if I had seen him in the flesh, as it were. Cricket is a complicated game. It is a team game but it is personal performances that define it. At any one instance, it is one on one, bowler against batsman, and at those times team spirit must count for nothing. Statistics, as with baseball, pervade the game, and it is individual statistics that dominate. Even an average sports fan probably knows Bradman's batting average, even if they couldn't name another member of the Invincible's side he was part of. Individual players, not teams, are what people go to see and it is not uncommon (or wasn't when I watched cricket) that supporters would cheer opposing players that they liked.

Cricket therefore does not fit with modern management methods, of team building, of suppressing individual talent into a homogenous whole. Pietersen is not without precedent. David Gower, coincidentally also a number four batsman, was also prematurely ejected from the England team because he was different. First he was gifted with talent that very few are given and in a team of average performers it must have been galling that he perhaps did not make the most of sublime ability. Graham Gooch, then England captain was the opposite; a grafter who through sheer will power and hard work, maximised his talent to become one of England's best batsman, statistically at least. To get there he needed to practice and to discipline himself but not content with imposing those strictures on himself, he applied them to his team - work ethic replaced natural ability and Gower's insouciance must have been particularly galling. It is probably no coincidence that Gooch is the current England side's batting coach.

Could Gower have been an even better batsman if he had followed Gooch's methods; probably. But he would not have been Gower any more - a player who played by instinct. Of course it was frustrating when he got out playing a stroke that Gooch, playing by percentages, would never have played. But that is the point isn't it. If everything is played by percentages brilliance is quashed, innovation is packed into its box and put into a dark cupboard. This is what team building does, it kills free thinking.

So Pietersen, just 33 years old and with at least another 5 years of batting ahead of him, has been kicked out. The captain, Alistair Cook, remains and the team will be built around him, the captain who was leader when the team lost those matches, who scored less runs than Pietersen and who presided over the Ashes loss. A captain who obviously does not like individualism and certainly is unable to handle it. So he ejects it even though it certainly means his record as a captain will be worse because of it.

So as in most things today everything is brought down to the lowest common denominator. Individual brilliance is equated with trouble making, with disrupting the team ethic. But every team has its Viv Richards, its star performer, and failing to accommodate them means a team is just a bunch of also-rans, as England will now be.

 

 

 

 

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