One of my favourite dinner party table tales concerns a distant relative who, in an important meeting with a group of European financiers, turned to his tax expert and asked for his view of an aspect of German tax law. Said gentleman respectfully declined to express one, saying that he didn’t feel he knew enough about the subject to pronounce upon it. With a mischievous smile, my relative then disarmed and amused those sitting around the board room table by replying “I find that hard to believe – I never have the slightest difficulty expressing an opinion on matters I know nothing about!”
I mention the above because – some might think without justification as regards expertise in the subject – today I am choosing to dip my toe into the murky waters of sporting controversy. In doing so I call in support two maxims. The first is that, however small their degree of expertise and experience, everyone is entitled to an opinion. The second, touching upon the point my great uncle was trying to make, is that sometimes the more you know about a subject, the harder it is to see the wood for the trees – and that therefore, conversely and ironically, the less you know about a subject, the easier it is to form an opinion.
I am solidly behind the ECB’s decision to ditch Pietersen. Those currently raising Cain at his enforced departure point to his outstanding run-scoring record, his ability to turn a game on its head with a brilliant innings, and the ‘weakness’ of pygmy managers and coaches who cannot find it in their armoury to harness the occasional maverick genius to a team’s cause.
Reduced to its essence, the issue can be characterised as a conflict between Roundheads and Cavaliers. In an ideal world, Roundheads would fill their team sheets with automaton robots who stick to the script and value teamwork above everything. In contrast, Cavaliers are laws unto themselves, often unhappy – and unable to produce their best – when restrained from giving rein to their free-spirited (and perhaps greater) talents.
There is no doubting Pietersen’s batting abilities, or indeed his entertainment value. If they had to choose, the romantics among us would far rather be dazzled by seeing ‘one off’ genius displaying his wares in a losing cause than watch a team of Roundhead playing the percentages, preventing the opposition from playing to its strengths, and winning a tournament or series.
That’s why, in soccer terms, past maverick legends such as Maradona, Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Jimmy Johnstone and George Best still burn brightly in the memory. Step forward also Gary Sobers and Colin Milburn in cricket, David Campese and Carlos Spencer in rugby, and Ilie Nastase and Henri Leconte in tennis. I could go on – or rather, dear readers, perhaps you could …
My point is this.
Sometimes in the affairs of men, or indeed sporting authorities, the imperative to win becomes fundamental.
Only yesterday, those who administer UK basketball were squealing to the rafters about being one of seven Olympic and Paralympic sports which have had their funding stopped by UK Sport. On the face of it, initially it seemed to this observer a justifiable complaint – that is, until I saw a Sky Sports interview with a representative of UK Sport explaining that, although basketball had received very generous funding for six years, it had consistently failed to meet its mutually-agreed medal targets and had no realistic chance of medalling (I apologise for the verb) at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Since UK Sport had always stressed that its open and transparent primary consideration had always been gaining medals, as regards the withdrawal of basketball’s funding, there was in principle no case to answer.
It seems to me that, after the debacle of this winter’s England’s cricket tour to Australia, winning – or at least getting back on the winning trail – has become the ECB’s primary consideration. Plainly, those involved both at senior administrative levels and ‘on the ground’ in and around the England squad have decided that, in this context, Kevin Pietersen is a luxury that they can do without.
In some respects, Pietersen’s fate can be seen a product of the growing revenues attracted by world sport. Through a combination of outstanding natural ability and hard work, he has become an iconic superstar – a globally-recognised sporting entertainer. Through astute management, he and his agents have created a Pietersen ‘brand’ and tapped into the many income-generating opportunities that inevitably come the way of such widely-admired, if not worshipped, exponents of sporting excellence.
When push comes to shove, however, the only question that needs answering is whether an individual, however talented, is more important than the team.
As I have indicated above, it seems to me that the ECB have decided – no doubt on the basis of both some evidence that we have all seen with our own eyes and/or surmised, and some evidence that not even the media are fully aware of – that Kevin Pietersen is not.
I respect that decision. The proof of the pudding will emerge over the next two to three years – let’s all wait and see.