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October 1, 2013

The myth of team togetherness

Jon Hotten
Asking the likes of KP to not be one-eyed and self-obsessed could well do teams they are in a world of harm  © Getty Images
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Reviewing Andrew Strauss's Testing Times: In Pursuit of the Ashes on its publication in 2009, David Hopps wrote that "Andrew Strauss could have a very fine book in him - but only after he retires."

As David noted, only then would he be free to stop tiptoeing around his central contract and tell it like it is - or at least like it was.

The book is now here, complete with the obligatory punsome title, in this case Driving Ambition (perhaps hoping for the odd frenzied shopper to mistake him for one of the Top Gear team during the last minute X'mas rush). It's being serialised by the Daily Mail, an acknowledgement that a captaincy that began and ended in KP "crises" has some tasty ingredients.

Reading through the extracts, though, it's not the detail of the bust-ups that hits home but something a little more curious. Skipping through the text itself, which is pitched somewhere between Dan Brown ("I avert my gaze from the inquisitive members") and Mills & Boon ("I am wallowing in a rising tide of sadness"), Strauss' theme emerges: it is about the primacy of the team, the "togetherness" that has become ubiquitous in any discussion of sports psychology.

As the KP texts enter the public arena (via, with sweet irony, the Daily Mail) he writes: "The nagging frustration I still have is that all of that time, effort and commitment from our players over a three-year period to make our environment special and different were undermined in one episode."

There's another revealing little anecdote too, from when Strauss had become captain of Middlesex and was required to ring Phil Tufnell to berate him for missing pre-season training on three successive Monday mornings. Again, the theme is there: "It is really important that the young players to realise that everyone is in this together, and if you aren't here it's impossible for us to do that."

Judging by Tufnell's reaction - "There is a pause on the end of the line. 'F**k off Straussy,' comes the response, and with that the phone goes dead" - not every cricketer believes the hype. Shane Warne was a famous refusenik, spraying scorn upon John Buchanan's outback camps and mottos from The Art Of War. There have been hundreds of other oddballs, individualists and contrarians, because cricket, the most singular of team sports not only attracts them, it practically demands them.

The notion that a team be united is necessarily modern. In the era of gentleman amateurs and salty pros, they didn't share a dressing room, let alone an ethos or a team song. In our new world, when even the slimmest of advantages is coveted, it has assumed a kind of critical mass. Anyone questioning its relevance is asking to become an outcast.

Yet does it actually work? Does it even exist, this "togetherness", this invisible force that heralds triumph, even invincibility?

It's a truism that all of the best teams have it, and that discontent often reigns in losing ones. But it can safely be argued that "togetherness" is a by-product of success and failure, rather than an engine for it.

Some members of the team may feel it while others don't. Strauss bemoans Pietersen's fracturing of the bond, and yet Pietersen clearly didn't feel the same way about this "special environment". Strauss makes clear that his discontent had been building for some time, rooted in a row with the ECB about playing in the IPL. Was the team united behind him then?

Sportsmen are selfish. They have to be, because they exist in an unyielding meritocracy that will drop them as soon as they can't cut it. To then ask them not to be one-eyed and self-obsessed is not only illogical but in some cases counter-productive, Pietersen being the obvious example.

Like cricket's other nebulous concepts - the zone, mental disintegration, luck, superstition - "togetherness" exists when it suits its participants for it to. Truly dominant teams have no real need for it at all.

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Posted by Insult_2_Injury on (October 4, 2013, 6:01 GMT)

There's a huge difference between a rarely talented player and a champion sportsman. A rarely talented player can influence the outcome of a contest but often believes team fortunes rest solely on them, as should the accolades.

A champion sportsman knows he needs as many team mates as possible to perform at their peak during the contest to win. The champion will provide the best environment for team mates to thrive to encourage success. Personal like and dislike doesn't come into it.

Don Bradman was not liked by all team mates, nor did he like all, but he knew even if he made a triple, he needed motivated bowlers to ensure the team took 20 wickets.

Posted by liz1558 on (October 1, 2013, 20:19 GMT)

If he were a golfer or tennis pro, you would be right about the selfish angle. The problem is for KP as it was Boycs: cricket is like any team game - no one is fond of an egotistical prima donna in the side, however good he is. And with regard to togetherness being unimportant, these sentiments are misguided. It was the basis of the success of the Roman legions, the 300 at Thermopylae and the 12 Apostles - the people who have probably had the biggest impact on the history of the world.

Posted by   on (October 1, 2013, 14:28 GMT)

kp is by far best 'English' cricketer.he deserves all the adulations from ecb.u need special treatment to special players. strauss was another cricketer in the team whereas kp is a game changer. big difference right there.

Posted by Westmorlandia on (October 1, 2013, 12:27 GMT)

I don't think everyone needs to be singing team songs and naming their children after each other, but you can't have a team ethic where people feel they can, or have to, undermine the effort to win, because it saps motivation from everyone else. Pietersen's ill-judged texts fall into that category.

Tufnell's kind of attitude is poison to a team, for the reason Strauss gave - if it means other people are less likely to turn up and train hard, it makes the team less likely to win. Strauss was right to try to sort him out.

I know my local footie team isn't perfectly analagous to the England cricket team, but nevertheless - we used to lose because players shouted at each other when a pass went wrong or whatever. When we were bad, I made the decision to stamp that out. Now we win lots and everyone is happy. But stamping out the stinking vibes came first, and it was crucial. People want to turn up, and they want to work hard and win.

So I think the author is being a little too cynical.

Posted by Nerk on (October 1, 2013, 10:29 GMT)

In the last few series, Australia have made similar statements about the importance of 'team chemistry' and Clarke in particular has made a big thing about 'team bonding sessions.' So a number of players have made their debuts on the basis of team chemistry, and it has worked wonderfully. The team should be picked on one basis only...who are the best XI players in the country. Then let them sort it out themselves.

Posted by legsidewide on (September 30, 2013, 21:43 GMT)

I think Warne had his own idea of togetherness, he just didn't like people being pompous. The Sky team were talking the other day about his county stints, where he got all the team to come up with a team song to help motivated them to win... I think the lesson here is that "togetherness" is usually inauthentic and vacuous when its touted. In England's case, it was a matter of "who're you trying to convince?" A lot of talk about al the "honesty" going around the dressing room and "building a legacy" with "daddy hundreds" in 2012, which ultimately amounted to nothing.

Posted by   on (September 30, 2013, 19:14 GMT)

when you win everybody gets on, the real skill is fighting through adversity. it takes a complete idiot to break up a winning team.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Hotten
Jon Hotten is the author of Muscle and The Years Of The Locust, neither of which is about cricket, and writes the blog The Old Batsman, which is. @theoldbatsman

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