Thank heaven we lost Kevin!

2009-01-16 00:00

DID South African cricket dodge a bullet when it inadvertently allowed Kevin Pietersen to slip from its grasp? An increasing amount of evidence is beginning to suggest that his departure from Natal was a lucky break however much one might have desired his presence in Graeme Smith’s team. There is no doubt Pietersen is an unusually gifted batsman with an ability to dominate bowling attacks that is currently unmatched by anyone else in world cricket. Cricket, however, has a long history of talented players who have caused such problems in dressing rooms that selectors have eventually decided that their teams are better off without them.

Pietersen is only 28 years old, but has already catalogued a series of departures that suggest his career will be tarnished by an ego too big to find comfortable acceptance within the tight confines of a cricket dressing room. There are some sports where colossal egos are tolerated but cricket is not one of them.

Cricket matches last too long and too much time is spent doing nothing for players to be able to conceal from others the less desirable sides of their personalities. Unfettered egos and selfish behaviour surface in dressing rooms with the inevitability of the morning sun. Jealousy is aroused when success breeds arrogance. Poor form can induce depression in some and paranoia in others.

Winning teams are generally happy teams, but losing dressing rooms can become hell on Earth, particularly when the captain is quick to blame and difficult to please or just plain awful.

I played in a Gloucestershire team in which the great Tom Graveney had been replaced as captain by an Old Etonian amateur, Tom Pugh. Graveney had left the county in disgust and the professionals in the team resented both the loss of their captain, who was a great player, and his replacement by a man who was untried as a captain and not good enough as a player to keep his place in the team.

Pugh had the misfortune to be both ignorant and arrogant — a deadly combination. By the time I joined the team in the middle of the season, Gloucestershire were lying last in the championship and the senior players had devised a plan to get rid of Pugh. This consisted of telling him precisely the opposite of what should be done whenever Pugh asked any of them for advice.

This state of affairs produced a raft of captaincy decisions that were plain daft, but rather like a Roald Dahl story the more absurd Pugh’s captaincy became the more games the team won. In the end, the team won 11 of its last 14 matches and finished fourth in the championship. Pugh finished the season in high spirits convinced that his team was behind him and that he had a long career in cricket ahead of him. It took a good old-fashioned mutiny of the players to get rid of him.

Pugh was not the first captain to have misread the signs in the dressing room and KP will not be the last. Captains often hear only what the players think they want to be told. Players are only too aware that the captain has a say in all sorts of issues that can affect their careers and are careful not to antagonise him. What they say behind his back, however, is often radically different from what he imagines.

Part of the art of captaincy is to read the mood in a dressing room and be aware of developing intrigues. It is essential that a captain has a good relationship with his senior professionals who can alert him to those tensions that might affect the team. In this regard Pietersen, with his narcissistic attitude to life, appears to have completely misjudged the nature of his relationship with Flintoff, who sank the fatal knife into the South African.

An egomaniac often finds it difficult to believe that others, particularly those upon whom he depends, do not like him. He should never be stupid enough to assume that his team will support him under all circumstances.

In Pietersen’s case he blamed Peter Moores for the team’s run of defeats and told the ECB that the whole team wanted Moores to be sacked. In fact many in the team thought that Pietersen’s captaincy in India had been infantile and that Moores had done a reasonable job in preparing the team. They thought that Pietersen was looking for a scapegoat.

This would have fitted into the pattern of Pietersen’s career. Natal failed to offer him a contract — blame quotas; the Notts players detested his arrogance — blame the County; England lose half a dozen games — blame the coach; he is fired as captain — blame the ECB. The person never at fault is the wonder batsman himself.

Under Mickey Arthur and Graeme Smith, the Proteas have developed into a happy unit devoid of the enervating tensions that can derail a team’s efforts. This has taken some doing given the unusual constraints within which the pair operate. They would have welcomed the presence in the team of a world-class batsman with the potential to win matches off his own bat.

Whether they could have tamed the elephant that would have taken up residence in the dressing room is another matter.

For all Pietersen’s talent, England have won few Tests against the big teams since he joined the team and lost a bunch of them.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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