Monday 13 August 2012

KP and the Art Of War

Many years ago, when I worked in magazines, I was at a planning meeting headed by the company's chief executive. He wasn't the usual sort you find in jobs like that. He'd grown up in a pub in North London, and he didn't use the burgeoning business-speak of the era. I made a suggestion, a decent enough idea, but it would have cost some dough to pull off.

He knocked it back kindly but firmly and said something that stuck with me: 'never raise the stakes unless you have to.'

It's a very simple bit of advice, but it's not easy to apply because for one thing it it requires you to know when the stakes have to be raised, and for another it goes against human nature, or at least against male nature. 

Kevin Pietersen compulsively raises the stakes when in conflict. At the crease it is instinctive, a fight or flight thing; he understands perfectly the 'him or me' moment and he has described it several times. One came on the final afternoon at the Oval in 2005, with the outcome of the greatest series of them all swaying back and forth and Brett Lee trying to remove his head with a volley of shells that Pietersen hooked at wildly, sending the ball further and further back into the stands. 'Him or me', were the exact words he used afterwards. Another happened at Leeds in the last Test, when Morne Morkel decided to bounce him from around the wicket with three men back, and, jolted by the adrenaline kick, he engaged and won. 'Him or me' he said again.

The same compulsion is evident in his reaction to conflict off the field. Like many sportsmen, he is perfectly attuned to the brutal logic of the game, and sometimes mystified when life does not respond in the same way. He has left a trail of psychic destruction as his career has moved ever upwards, and it's interesting to note, from his twitter account and his public comments, who he regards as his real peer group - players in the very highest echelon: Warne, Gayle, Dravid, Jayawardene, Steyn, de Villiers. He once played in a charity game for Piers Morgan in return for an introduction to Simon Cowell, a man who, to Pietersen, represented contemporary power and achievement.

It's partly why he sees the IPL in the way he does. The competition is a vast, pulsating stage on which the best are treated like the best; paid, feted, sought after, loved uncomplicatedly. With his sharpened playing instinct, Pietersen can interpret the IPL as the ultimate meritocracy, a 'him or me' arena that is watched, absorbed and obsessed over by billions. Through his eyes, it's hard to gaze back at England and the establishment and comprehend why they would not just accept its virtues and adjust the calendar. He feels the 'him or me' moment looming, and he is right.

Pietersen is the classic high-maintenance sportsman, a drama queen, a capricious, self-regarding, insecure outsider with a misunderstood ego. He is also the hardest working, most diligent and inventive of cricketers, capable of organising a meet and greet session off his own back for fans stoically sitting out a rainbreak - publicised on Twitter of course.

In the 90 minutes of endlessly replayable comedy glory that is Spinal Tap, there is a scene following the debacle of the band's performance of Stonehenge where their manager Ian Faith is trying to explain that the miniature triptych lowered onto the stage and almost crushed by a dancing dwarf was made to guitarist Nigel Tufnell's exact specifications.

'Yeah,' counters singer David St Hubbins, 'but it's not your job to be as confused as Nigel'.

There in perfect miniature, is the ECB. It is not their job to be as confused as Kevin. Anyone visiting their shimmering glass offices at Lord's will find an organisation that is essentially made up of managers, a tower of management devoted to the micro-management of the game, from who plays it to how they'd like us to write about it. Management is their job, their credo, their thing.

Much of their management is very good. The last week's has been worthy of David Brent. It's tempting to imagine Hugh Morris writing 'Hugh Morris Investigates' on a piece of A4 and sticking it over his office window as he tries to locate the smoking gun of KP's text message to Dale Steyn.

It is a very British farce that the team's best player is publically humiliated over a message that they haven't actually seen. What is less amusing is the language they have used to justify it. Here is the pernicious side of modern management.

"The success of the England team is built on  a unity of purpose and trust", is a phrase that looks great on a whiteboard, but that means little beyond its rhetoric. Which of the teams that England play again doesn't have "a unity of purpose"? How much trust does a team actually need? The game has been built on centuries of feuding team-mates. As Shane Warne tweeted, there were plenty of players he didn't like and who didn't like him. They were simply required to play cricket together, and to win.

Warne detested John Buchanan, his wallcharts, his bootcamps and his his references to The Art Of War. The great leggie knew that Australia would have won anyway. It's easy to overcomplicate things and then attribute success to the wrong places.

Dave Brailsford is the ur-manager in British sport. He has delivered Olympic success and the Tour de France by micro-managing the controllables like equipment and training and so on. So, to their credit, have the ECB. But Brailsford has also managed Victoria Pendleton, another emotional, driven star who has demanded much of him and his organisation. He found a way to keep her and the rest of team together, because the team was better with her in it.

The ECB's job is to put the best side out on the field for the punters who pay their money for tickets and lay out for their TV subs. Pietersen is emphatically in that XI. Everything else - the bruised egos, the fake tweets, the England player who passed a dressing room TV while Pietersen was batting and said 'get that South African twat out soon', the divided camps dripping their poison to the press - is secondary, and manageable if you know how to manage.

Faced with their equivalent of 'him or me', the ECB have raised the stakes. They really didn't have to.  'Him or me' moments are reserved for on the field, that's where the war is. By dropping Kevin Pietersen they have failed in their only real purpose.


David said...

Great article! Too many people are acting like either side has done no wrong, which is obviosuly false.

But, I have been concerned about the way the ECB has gone about this. It seems a bit rich, after all the leaks and the way other England players have gotten away with certain books,for them to censure him for private communciations. It's a bit too thought police for my tastes.

And I did think, while this was all going on, imagine if the ECb had been managing the team with Warne it. We would have missed some of the greatest cricket ever seen. Sadly, I think we are going to miss some of the greatest cricket of the next few yars because of this.

John Holmes said...

Another great read.... I hadn't seen it quite like this.

It's pretty dull of the ECB to effectively "fire" KP for tweets they haven't seen..

J Shu said...

Oh has to come to this in the end, doesn't it? The empire strikes back, by sacrificing the hired help. KP realizes now how thick that social strata actually is. I've never liked him as a personality, but I really feel he is a victim here of a problematic continuation of problematic colonial asymmetries that resonate into the present.

Sidders said...

"He'd grown up in a pub in North London"

Tom Moloney. So...EMAP?

Peter said...

Excellent analysis of the drama - the ECB's job is to manage England's best XI and they're not doing it if they leave out KP.

He has done the wrong thing, but it is the ECB's job to make it work so he can be part of a harmonious team. (If the ECB could stop leaking like a sieve to selected journalists, that would be nice too).

John Collins said...

Balanced, fair and objective, really good stuff. One question though... Does anyone know the ID of the England player who said "get that South African twat out" - I've heard this mentioned a couple of times recently and no-one appears willing to confirm who it is. Guessing from stuff in the media recently it was either SWann/Anderson ??

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts.

IMHO, its more than 'one side at fault' issue. In ECB's defense, having someone like KP in the team (a perennial misfit and ego) is a distraction. One man can only be given such leeway and off late (press conferences, you tube video) water has crossed the mark. Having said that, they could have seen and managed it well rather than waiting for it to simmer and explode like it did. KP has his points (media leaks, schedule, double standards, etc.) but even he will agree that he is playing his own version of media warfare which doesn't help. Seriously, who's advising him all this churlish bravado and U-turns?!

Short term, they did the right thing by dropping him because I don't see 11 guys pulling together if KP plays in that team. People who say that England will be poorer w/o KP - yes, on paper they will be. But cricket is a funny game and you never know. With that team atmosphere, KP might not have even added/performed and worse, have had a negative impact on others performance. So, this is the 'best' team that could have been picked under current circumstances. Flower has got this one right, no doubts. I don't see him coming back for world T20 (a shame!) as I saw him in IPL this year and no questions, he has that 'X' factor.

Mid/Long term: I hope they can resolve it as England are at their best when KP is in the side. KP needs to sober down and a general sense of 'unfriendliness' that is present against him in this England team needs to be better managed if not wiped away completely. Work for both sides but they are professionals? Lets see how they go about it.

Counter views are welcome.

CricketNNS said...

Awesome article. It's always about "I" with England, there's hardly any team unity. Maybe it's because the team is half-filled with South Africans. Maybe because the captain (Straussy) fails to do his part, dropping catches and not making runs. Maybe because the pressure of the no.1 ranking is taking over. Whatever it is, England must figure out and do something. Especially KP.

John Halliwell said...

The OB’s blogging output these days reminds me of waiting ages for a bus then two come along at once. The compensation for those prepared to wait is, as always, a superb and highly perceptive read.

I’m glad the ECB called KP’s post-Headingley bluff. He must have believed that his spectacular innings of 149 would so proclaim his vast superiority over all other England qualified batsmen, and his belief in his irreplaceability, that a threat to pack it all in would send Morris, Flower, Strauss and Miller into a total rethink over his longer involvement with the IPL season resulting in agreement to him missing at least part of the New Zealand series. With KP’s subsequent climbdown, we are now faced with the prospect of him playing for England in all forms of the game. I hope the issues can be resolved, however difficult that might be, with Pietersen available for inclusion in the squads post the South African series.

zephirine said...

Very good article.
Particularly the bit about the IPL - people always seem to assume that KP's after the money, but he's got lots of money already, it is surely, as you say, that he feels the IPL is where he belongs, where the international stars of cricket will be. That must be an annoying mindset to be around for the other players, but it's hard to argue that he's not an international star.
But blimey, getting Piers Morgan to introduce you to Simon Cowell!! Poor, sick, deluded boy.

growltiger said...

Really excellent analysis of the Pietersen psychology, why it works in sport and only up to a point in life. Actually, it is surprisingly often correct to raise the stakes in life, as well as sport. But your mentor was largely right in saying (or implying) that it should only be done when the odds are in favour.

The problem with Kevin is that he always thinks the odds are in his favour, whether this is the case or not. His idea about negotiating with the ECB is the same as his idea (vintage 2005, Lord's) that it was as easy to drive Glenn McGrath onto the pavilion balcony as to play a forward defensive.

If you abandon normal negotiating moves in favour of making repeated, outrageous and inconsistent demands, your opposite number at the poker table will be confused. They may play their cards badly, and you may win. Game theory says that you should do this, sometimes, when the odds are not quite right, accepting that the actual outcome on a given occasion may not be your absolute top preference. I think this is what Pietersen meant when he talked about taking "decisions that will make me happy" (Headingley, 2012).

Unfortunately, Kevin's idea about all this is also the same idea as that ridiculous sweep he tried to play at Cardiff in 2009. (The first time, as far as I can recall that we heard him say, by way of supposed justification, "That's the way I play"). And that is the problem with people who make life into a competitive two-person game. Sometimes your opposite number gets fed up with being treated as an opponent, and calls your bluff. Moreover, when playing against somebody who repeatedly raises the stakes, regardless of the odds, calling them is the right thing to do. It is recognised in game theory as the only way to get somebody like that to change their strategy. In normal life, normal people just walk away.

So I was surprised when the bottom line of your post was that Hugh Morris was the one who had mistakenly picked his "him or me" moment. He was calling Kevin's bluff, finally.

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livescore said...

Kevin Peterson is definitely a very good batsmen and he has been doing the job for England for many years.He is a classy batsmen and at the same time meets the standards of todays fast paced T20 cricket in fact England won the last T20 world cup because of his outstanding batting but unfortunately England's selectors are not selecting him for this years T20 world cup That's a shame.You are not selecting the backbone of your batting then how can you hope to win.I must say that England should bring him back into the team.

Pay per head said...

the art of war, I remember that I read a short book called the art of war by some Japanese or Chinese writer and it was very good, after reading this post, I want to read that book again!

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