11 June 2015

GOOD EGGS AND BAD APPLES: FOOD FOR THOUGHT ON TEAM DYNAMICS

Daniel Gallan

Team Unity vs Unrivalled Talent: it’s an age old debate that selectors and managers have had to grapple with. Do you select the gifted, yet troubled, genius with sheer natural ability and determination who can win you matches all on his own? Or, do you opt to leave the outspoken troublemaker out of your team in order to maintain team cohesion and a unified philosophy? Newly appointed Director of Cricket for the England and Wales Cricket Board, Andrew Strauss, had to make a tough decision over the selection of Kevin Pietersen. Strauss chose team cohesion over individual brilliance and denied Pietersen an England call-up. A brave choice, and one that poses many questions.

Kevin Pietersen is one of the most gifted cricketers around. Unfortunately, as is often the case with talented athletes, his off-field behaviour has placed his position in the England national team in jeopardy. To date, his omission from the side still stands, and the debate between team unity and individual brilliance continues. 

Kevin Pietersen is one of the most gifted cricketers around. Unfortunately, as is often the case with talented athletes, his off-field behaviour has placed his position in the England national team in jeopardy. To date, his omission from the side still stands, and the debate between team unity and individual brilliance continues. 

With England drawing their two Test match series 1-1 with New Zealand recently, and the first ball of The Ashes less than a month away, one of cricket’s most controversial and dramatic issues doesn’t look like dissipating any time soon. In fact, it looks set to become a recurring theme in every conversation, interview, or article concerning cricket’s most iconic series.

Kevin Pietersen, the South African born, flamboyantly gifted batsman, who has England’s crest tattooed on his left shoulder, has polarised opinion with his recent omission from the Three Lions’ squad. This came after former captain, Andrew Strauss (also born in South Africa), was appointed as Director of Cricket for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Bizarrely, Pietersen was offered an advisory role for the One Day International (ODI) team in the same meeting that he was told of his exclusion.

“The truth about Kevin is that he is a phenomenal cricketer,” Strauss said shortly after the announcement. “But over months and years, trust has eroded between Kevin Pietersen and the ECB. While there is no trust between Kevin and the ECB, it is our opinion that he cannot feature in our short-term plans. Long term, who knows?”

This breakdown in trust came to the fore in 2012 when Pietersen sent former South African captain, Graeme Smith, a text message concerning Strauss and how to bowl to him. Pietersen was dropped for the next game, England lost the series, and Strauss retired from all forms of cricket.

With Strauss gone, and England’s batting line-up lacking both aggression and experience, all was forgiven as Pietersen returned. His reselection was vindicated with a swashbuckling 186 against India a few months later (one of his finest knocks), and a gutsy 113 against Australia to help save the third Test of England’s victorious Ashes series in 2013.

His form, as form often does, dipped, and England were beaten 5-0 in Australia in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer later that year. He averaged just 29 in the series with a top score of 71. Though he was England’s top run scorer over the 5 matches, many believed he failed to step up as a senior batsman and his 6 runs off 10 balls in the second innings in Sydney were his last in Test cricket.

Strauss has been accused of making his decision based on personal issues. He publicly told Pietersen to return to England’s county cricket system and make runs before he would be eligible for selection again. He did that with a score of 326 not out for Surrey in May but was still not selected. Though one big score is not a sufficient sample size, his omission was seemingly not based solely on cricketing reasons.

French football manager Aimé Jacquet came under heavy criticism before the 1998 FIFA World Cup when he left out both Eric Cantona and David Ginola from his squad. He cited cohesion and team unity (or the lack thereof) as the motive behind his decision. France won the World Cup and he was justified. 

Didier Dechamps, France’s manager during their disastrous 2014 World Cup, was not so lucky when he left out gifted youngster Samir Nasri, for similar reasons. He said: “It’s not necessarily the 23 best French players, but it’s the best squad in my eyes to go as far as possible in this competition.” They never left the group stages and questions were raised over selections.

Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is widely regarded as one of the best man managers in world sport. His ability to turn talented mavericks into team players saw his side collect a host of titles.

Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is widely regarded as one of the best man managers in world sport. His ability to turn talented mavericks into team players saw his side collect a host of titles.

A talented maverick has the ability to turn a game on its head with individual brilliance, but any team is more than the sum of its parts. Strauss and captain, Alastair Cook, will argue that Pietersen will create an environment that will see the team suffer as a whole. Cricket is a team sport comprised of individual battles, but if those individuals can’t operate at their peak performance because of one man’s arrogance and reluctance to be a team player, his expulsion is justified.

Strauss also needs to be commended for sticking with his gut feel. Anyone in a managerial position has to make tough decisions that might go against popular and conventional wisdom. Stars like Shane Warne, Geoffrey Boycott, Kumar Sangakkara, and others criticised Strauss on Twitter with many labelling the former opening batsman as petty and selfish while #strausslogic became a trending topic. However, Strauss needs to select a team that allows every individual in that team to perform at his best.

Ethically, Strauss deserves more commendation, as Pietersen is clearly a man who does not subscribe to traditional codes of team morale. This was evident during the SMS debacle as well as his constant public criticism of England’s current batsmen. Stuart Lancaster, head coach of England’s national rugby union team, was praised when he stuck to a strong ethical code and dropped Manu Tuilagi from his World Cup squad, after the star player was found guilty of assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver earlier this year. Tuilagi’s sacking had nothing to do with his ability to play rugby and England will no doubt miss his physical presence at their home World Cup later this year. However, Lancaster was clear that his players need to be role models and hold themselves to a high moral standard.

Then again, isn’t it the job of the coaches, managers, and captain to tame the renegade? Pietersen, the player, is no doubt an exceptional talent. If Pietersen, the man, needs winning over, then it is it not up to Trevor Bayliss (newly appointed England coach), Strauss and Cook to convince him to align with their philosophy? If it is unity and team cohesion they’re after, then perhaps they are the ones that need to make it happen. Sir Alex Ferguson has long been heralded as a fantastic man manager for his ability to win over troubled stars. Cantona, Wayne Rooney, Roy Keane; the list of players that the Scot was able to tame and turn into superstars is as long as his list of honours. A talented athlete needs to be on the field and every step should be taken to ensure that he is. If his ethics or personality are an issue, measures should be taken to rectify them.

Every team has a host of backroom staff dedicated to the psychology of the game. Social media experts are a phone call away and with the amount of money thrown at sport, surely some could be spared to help Kevin Pietersen with whatever mental and social problems he might have. If Strauss let bygones be bygones and stood up as the bigger man, perhaps Pietersen would have felt compelled to excel and develop a character that is worthy of his undoubted talent. Wouldn’t Strauss rather regain The Ashes than let a personal issue hamper his nation’s chances of victory? Pietersen’s runs would go a long way towards that.

But what message would that have sent? Betraying his teammates and adopted nation by divulging information to the opposition’s captain was not enough to banish him. England’s higher ups appeared weak and desperate when they allowed him back. Finally, a line in the sand was drawn and Strauss as a strong leader will likely stand by his convictions.

If England managed to defy the odds and win back the smallest trophy in world sport, the Pietersen debate will be relegated to a mere footnote and Strauss and co. will have been proved correct. But rest assured, should England lose the first match, and their middle order crumble under Aussie pressure, rumbles for a recall will resound from the pro-KP camp. Talent vs Team Unity: it’s a theme that will endure as long as sport. 

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