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.
Cricket 2014 – Three Favourite Moments
1 week ago