January 13, 2014

Who's to blame when a player and coach fall out?

In football it's often clear whether a player's attitude or performance has a detrimental effect on the team. In cricket, that isn't so obvious from the outside

Does Pietersen's talent outweigh the negatives? © PA Photos

As is probably apparent if you've read any of these columns before, I'm not a cricket writer. I'm a football writer and, while much of what I like about cricket is what makes it different from football, I have a tendency to interpret cricket through a footballing lens (something that is becoming increasingly easy to do as cricket seems determined to ape football, with its transfers, managerial dismissals, ill-advised micturition, bitter one-eyed fans and time-wasting: once players start diving, feigning injury and wearing inappropriate fancy dress, then we know we're doomed.) I'm never terribly clear how relevant or useful that is, but here, offered as a thought-experiment more than an actual argument, is a footballing take on the Andy Flower-Kevin Pietersen spat.

The archetype, of course, is very familiar: a coach whose method is (at least theoretically) based on meticulous preparation, discipline and hard work, who is occasionally criticised for being too methodical and cautious, struggling to deal with an awkward genius whose attacking style endears him to most - but not all - fans, but is unpredictable, whose brilliance can win games but comes at a cost.

Football history is littered with similar examples, from Arrigo Sacchi with Roberto Baggio to every England manager with Glenn Hoddle or Matt Le Tissier to, arguably, Jose Mourinho with Juan Mata (although awkwardness here covers a very broad spectrum).

I confess that in football, my tendency is - generally but not universally - to back the coach. Football at the highest level, for all the romantic and naïve attempts to deny the fact, is a game of structure and if a player is not performing his defensive responsibilities, even if he is scoring goals or creating chances, the net effect tends to be detrimental. The most fascinating examples, perhaps, come with players who aren't obviously lazy or egotistical, and yet still have a negative effect. After Thierry Henry left Arsenal, for instance, Cesc Fabregas spoke of the sense of liberation he felt because he was picking passes on merit rather than simply trying to get the ball to the Frenchman; similarly a case can be made that in his final season at Liverpool, Michael Owen was a negative because they had to play to suit his strengths.

There's even an argument that the modern Liverpool play better without Steven Gerrard, that the icon somehow outshines everything else and, once he has gone, other players take responsibility rather than relying on the designated genius to do something spectacular. Of course fans often back the player - after all, even for those who prioritise results over artistry, which isn't all, it's easier to recall the moments of brilliance and to relate to them than to admire the fastidious schema of a coach. But that doesn't mean a coach should put up with a player who he feels, either through lack of work rate, refusal/inability to follow instruction or general demeanour, undermines him or his tactical plans.

In football, in those circumstances, what you would do is look at how many games a team won with the player in question and how many without. And because most clubs play 50 or so games a season, there's usually a reasonable amount of statistical evidence to go on.

Pietersen, annoyingly - and frankly this is typical of his selfishness - offers very little evidence. Of the 111 Tests England have played since he made his debut in 2005, he has missed just seven. For what it's worth, England's record with him is W42 D31 L31 and without W3 D2 L2. That suggests England are better with Pietersen than without, but the sample size is so small as to be almost meaningless.

That doesn't alter the question, though, which is whether the benefits of Pietersen's talents outweigh the negatives he - seemingly - causes (although it's always worth asking when one player appears remote from the rest of the team whether it's the fault of the individual or a clique within the team). If this were football, the answer would almost certainly be no: there is no place in the modern game for mavericks who don't subjugate themselves to the good of the team, as outlined by - in this case - a coach who has a great record of success (up until the past three months).

But that's where we came in. Cricket isn't football and in many ways is an individual sport in a team game's clothing. In football an individual not doing his job on the pitch has an immediate knock-on effect on everybody else: it leaves gaps, forces others to cover, can ruin the dynamic and shape of a team. In cricket, though, if somebody is scoring runs and fielding competently, unless he's batting with deleterious slowness, the effect on the team is far less obvious than in football.

What impact there is can only be on morale and, as a corollary, focus.

And that, really, is something that is almost impossible for an outsider to know. A football answer to the Pietersen problem would be to jettison him; in cricket the answer is far less clear.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Venkat on January 15, 2014, 5:49 GMT

    I find it unfathomable that England is considering dropping their best batsman. They should be giving him more responsibility and simply allowing him to express his genius. People like Flower, like Buchanan and Greg Chappell perhaps look great when the team is winning. In a losing team that is short of inspiration, and genuine matchwinners, they simply look jaded and out of ideas. Instead of considering dropping Pietersen, make him the nucleus of the side for the next few years and build around him. It will pay dividends, and he still has a few good years of test cricket left in him.

  • Terry on January 14, 2014, 10:37 GMT

    Only losing sides quibble about dropping 50 odd averaging batters. He is their best batter .. Period. Trouble shoot the other positions and failings.

  • Rizwan on January 14, 2014, 8:54 GMT

    Trott is gone , Root is not yet the finished article and Stokes is finding his feet which leaves only 3 potential match winners with the bat , KP , Cook and Bell- Cook is in the words of Athers, a Plodder and not a quick scorer and Bell has a better strike rate than Cook but nowhere in the league of KP - As for the Coach , he can't bat for England,Therefore , England needs KP more than KP needs England(KP can coin it with the IPL if he is not wearing England colours)

  • Asif on January 14, 2014, 3:53 GMT

    'Individual game in team sport clothing' is a very apt description of cricket! But really, the writer has not answered the questions he's raised, so what is this piece abt ?

  • Aaron on January 14, 2014, 2:08 GMT

    A while back we had a similar situation in New Zealand with Chris Cairns and Adam Parore versus the coach Glenn Turner. Of course Turner wasn't as good a coach as Flower .

    What was interesting however was the approach of the next coach and manager. I read some comments from the manager John Graham (who is a former All Black and School Principal) who said that he enjoyed the challenge of getting the best out of the troubled genius's in the team - which is an entirely different attitude to what we're seeing in England at the moment - one that accepts that some young men (and early 30s is still young from my perspective) need help with the psychological situation

    It took the arrival of Cook to get Pietersen back in the team and it may be that it needs a new coach just so that all the old baggage can be cleared out.

  • Aidan on January 14, 2014, 1:07 GMT

    Hmm All agree in the comments with you. You are quite right that Cricket is more individualistic than football (and all other football codes). But it is a lot more of a team game than you seem to suggest "team's game clothing". Batting in partnerships requires an awareness of your partner - running between wickets and how they are going. Fielders also have a very important part to play in taking catches for bowlers and minimizing runs. If you have a player doing their own thing on a repetitive basis (I am not assuming this is true of Pieterson) it can become yeast which leavens the whole lump for worse. Maybe it is true you can get away with a loose cannon more so in football but I think it is only true to an extent. Just ask cricketing teammates.

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2014, 23:25 GMT

    An interesting analysis and I can't help but think about rugby union. The only example that comes to mind is Jonah Lomu. His presence on the field was immense. It often took 2-3 men to stop him and in this regard he became a significant part of the team strategy. He was used as a decoy runner to draw in player and leave gaps. He was also used, on occasions, around the ruck area which is unheard of for a winger. It seemed to me that the AllBlacks used his presence and strength to their advantage, but I have to point out that whilst he had a huge following, he was very much a "team first" character. His humility and team first approach was admirable. How does this comparison fit in with KP. I guess I question his agendas, but not his brilliance.

  • Reg on January 13, 2014, 13:03 GMT

    to Bill Apter, MATHEMATICALLY England's record is slightly better without Pietersen; STATISTICALLY, the sample size is much too small to make a useful comment, exactly as stated.

    It doesn't bother me if Engand want to shoot themselves in both feet, but it does seem bizarre that KP and Carberry (top 2 run-getters in the late Ashes side) get the most stick. And you binned Compton as well! It must be wonderful to have such riches of talent that these guys are apparently disposable. Presumably these 3 were high on the list of potential run-getters before they got test caps. So their replacements have been must be below 6 in that list. The theory, then, is that the team will be better off using numbers 7 8 and 9 on the list. If you can identify them that is! Anywhere below the very top of the list it all goes really blurry (I think the statisticians call it "the scree" ) so you might end up with 8 11 and 14.

    Good luck with that . . .

  • Ahmer on January 13, 2014, 8:41 GMT

    Great piece Jon.It is rare in top-class football for one player to literally take on a team himself, but in cricket a charged up bowler or batsman can make up for a listless side on his own. The scope for one individual to change the game is so large in cricket and KP is one of the best at being able to exploit that.

  • Jai on January 13, 2014, 5:19 GMT

    A very nice article Jonathan and I agree with you almost entirely. I would say though that Pietersen doesn't fit the "awkward genius" tag very well. In football these players involve a trade-off and are actually inconsistent. Pietersen isn't inconsistent, in fact his record is both brilliant and consistent. What makes him 'awkward' is that he doesn't play the way the coach wants him to.

    Imagine a negative coach who instructs his defenders to hoof the ball away at the slightest sign of danger (though his side are pretty decent, David Moyes for instance). Imagine now a cultured defender who is the best player in the side by a mile, refusing to do so and on balance providing great results. On the few occasions when his attempts to play out result in a goal, the coach will make him the scapegoat. I hope you read comments, because this is the actual analogy to what's happening over here.

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