WHY THE ECB WAS RIGHT TO SACK KEVIN PIETERSEN. JUST 18 MONTHS TOO LATE
The ECB’s (mis)handling of the Kevin Pietersen situation was a classic case of ‘right decision, wrong time’.
They should have sacked him the moment the Andrew Strauss texts came to light. Washed their hands of him, and never looked back.
There is always a line.
We might never find out exactly what Pietersen wrote in those texts. But it seems clear they contained some abuse of his own captain, and tips on how to get him out. Strauss is clearly a decent, good natured guy. For him to be moved to describe KP as a ‘double C’ I think we can assume those texts were really bad. KP had a line, and he went way, way over it. There should have been no way back.
It’s naïve to think that the line is drawn in the same place for every player in a team. Great players and individualistic characters will always get a bit more leeway, the line can be pushed out a bit. That’s smart man-management.
But it’s a crucial management job to set the lines so people know where they are. To recognise when they have been crossed. And then to have the authority and balls to do what has to be done.
Roy Keane got plenty of special treatment over the years from Sir Alex Ferguson because of his great value as a player and captain. He made allowances for the fact that as an individual he could be a violent, aggressive and awkward.
But Keane was Fergie’s favourite player and greatest captain. Yet as soon as Keane overstepped the line (with attacks on Carlos Queiroz and his team-mates) Sir Alex decided in a heart-beat that he was done.
That the ECB didn’t recognize the moment with KP is to their discredit, and is the seed of all the ugly fallout that inevitably followed.
Anyone who needs to be ‘re-integrated’ into a team is never going to be a good team player. Pietersen is often described as a ‘maverick’. But he’s not a maverick, he’s just an arsehole.
He’s also often referred to as a ‘great player’. He wasn’t. He was a good standard international batsman, no more.
Sachin Tendulkar averaged 53.8 in Tests. Brian Lara averaged 52.9. Ricky Ponting 51.9. Jacques Kallis averaged 55.4 (while also taking 292 runs).
Were they great batsmen? Probably. Maybe. Depends on your definition of ‘great’ obviously.
Don Bradman averaged 99.9. Now he WAS a great batsman!
Kevin Pietersen averaged 47.3. Not bad. But certainly not ‘great’.
As sporting statistics go, a batsman’s Test batting average is a pretty good way of measuring their worth. There are a few factors that it can’t reflect though.
Occupying the crease will tire out the opposition attack, take the shine off a new ball and allow more free-scoring colleagues at the other end to attack. It gives the batting side control and it’s a valuable aspect of team ‘innings building’ that pure average doesn’t convey.
Mike Atherton is a good example of a player who contributed more than his Test average would suggest. He ‘only’ averaged 37.7 in Tests. But he faced 98 balls per innings. KP only faced 73.
Being a good batting partner in the middle, contributing in the field and adding value to the group through being a good team-mate all go towards making a team greater than the sum of its individual parts. I think it’s safe to say that KP was far from great in this regard.
There is another X factor though, where Pietersen did excel; the capacity to play game-changing innings’.
On a tough wicket, or in a tight situation few batsmen possess the ability to play a destructive attacking innings that ‘takes the game away’ from the opposition. This has big value.
Having a player with this game-changing capacity gives hope to a team, even in bad situations. It scares the opposition. And of course it wins matches.
Mark Hughes is currently the manager of Stoke City. In his playing career he played for Man Utd, Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It was about Hughes that I first heard the phrase; he was a ‘scorer of great goals’, rather than a ‘great goal-scorer’.
Hughes ‘only’ scored 180 goals in 678 senior games (0.27 goals per game). Not a bad tally obviously, but nothing like the strike rate of his contemporary Ian Rush (284/675 – 0.42). Or a striker like Alan Shearer (313/622 – 0.50).
But Hughes had the capacity to score spectacular, long range goals. He didn’t require his team to be dominating the game, laying on chances for him. He wasn’t a six-yard-box poacher. He was a twenty-yard volley merchant. You always had a chance while was on the pitch. He could turn a game. And the opposition knew it.
And therein lay KP’s value to the England team. He was a player of great innings’, if never a great overall batsman.
The capacity of a player to play a devastating, counter-attacking innings is a valuable commodity in Test matches, also in shorter formats. But it’s not indispensible. There’s still always a line, beyond which any player is more trouble then they’re worth. It’s a matter of efficiency, risk and reward. Overall, do they contribute more than they cost?
At his very best, the line of tolerance could be pushed out to accommodate KP because of the match changing potential he brought to the crease. But, hampered by knee injuries, those very best days have been firmly behind him for a few years.
The collective unity of a cricket team is arguably more important than in any other sport. The nature of the sport means team-mates spend a huge number of hours in each other’s company. Teams tour abroad for months. They play five day matches, for long spells during which they sit together in a dressing room or on a balcony.
A player needs to be a truly exceptional individual for the efficiency of a team to be improved by his solo exploits, if he is also an overall net drain on the team collective.
There’s a line.
So when Pietersen sent those texts he should have been gone. Instantly. The ECB should have recognized where the line was, and that KP was well beyond it. They would almost certainly have been right to have binned him even if he had sent the texts while at his peak as a batsman.
But at the time he sent them it was the prefect ‘Carpe Diem’ moment for them to trade the vague promise of some great future innings for the improvement of the team as a whole.
It’s never a bad thing in management to ask the question ‘what would Sir Alex have done?’. Fergie would have sacked KP the moment he found out about those texts.
Effectively condoning the texts, pushing out the line and re-integrating KP into the team was a crass error of judgement by the ECB.
You reap what you sow.
The Ashes whitewash and a massive media shit-storm a couple of years down the line was the price they paid for the error.