October 1, 2013

The myth of team togetherness

They say all great sides have it, but perhaps it is a result of success, not a contributor to it

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

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.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here