August 16, 2013

How to handle Pietersen

Give genius players like him the freedom and appreciation they desire and they'll win matches for you more often than not

It was just over 11 months ago that on an unusually pleasant morning in Colombo I found myself driving down to Mount Lavinia. Elsewhere, with the World Twenty20 on, hotel lobbies were abuzz, journalists with darting eyes were looking for something no one else might have noticed, autograph books were being whipped out faster than credit cards, and players were everywhere, but this hotel in Mount Lavinia was quiet. It lay in a secluded corner, and that, for one of its guests, was its most attractive feature.

Kevin Pietersen was all over the English media and, not for the first, or indeed the last, time, it had little to do with his extraordinary ability to play cricket. He had been left out of the side, the strongest adjectives were being dusted away to describe him, and there was a debate on whether he should play for England again. He was being asked to apologise, effectively to kneel down in a classroom, and get a promise of good conduct signed by his parents for the class teacher. It was unbelievable and I was a bit baffled because the Pietersen I had come across had seemed a bit different.

It threw up a fascinating dilemma. England needed the match-winner in him but England needed him to be a conformist. The two qualities haven't always co-existed within one person. Indeed it is worth studying whether match-winners actually become so because they dare to question the given.

In the world of business and management, which I like to watch from the sidelines, managing mavericks has always been a challenge. And it was thus that I asked Pietersen if he would talk to me on camera. I was quite keen to know how people like him liked to be handled. Given the circumstances I was quite prepared for him to say no. Instead, he said yes, gave me an appointment and was ready when I reached his hotel. He was extremely pleasant, and when I asked if he could replace his vest, which showed up his biceps and his tattoos, with something a little less dramatic, he popped back straightaway and emerged in a polo shirt.

The person who came through in the conversation, though, was scarcely a rebel. It was clear that he knew he was a better player than almost anybody else in the game, but it was also clear that he took great pride in playing for England and that he worked very hard at his game. It confirmed my view about these extraordinary performers - that when no one is watching, they are working their backsides off, that at the heart of what seems to be genius is a lot of toil. Certainly that was true of Warne and Akram, and is of Tendulkar.

It was clear he was uncomfortable in the existing set-up that sought to discipline him. How would he handle himself, or another like him, I asked. He wanted to be left alone from time to time, he said. He would, he said, train as hard as anyone else, work on his game and be prepared. Nobody would accuse him of shirking. But he wanted his space, he wanted the freedom to do things his way. It is not uncommon among super-achievers.

Cricket needs Pietersen as it needed Warne, and it needs leaders to understand their genius. Without their spice it will be a vanilla game

These are people who know their game inside out, read situations differently, and find ways to deal with them that may not always be apparent to everybody. Almost certainly their solutions will be unique to their talents, difficult for someone else to replicate. These are nature's freaks and that is why they are breathtaking to watch. And that is why they cannot be trapped by a system. They need to be handled differently; you cannot crack the whip and get them to sit on a stool as once-proud animals might in a circus. Having had the great joy of spending some time with Shane Warne, I could see why he and Pietersen understood each other so well.

It doesn't mean they are always right. A month later Pietersen was in Ahmedabad playing the two most bizarre innings you can imagine. Against Pragyan Ojha on a mild turner, he looked lost, his feet were out of tune with his bat, and it was a very strange spectacle. He didn't look like he was born to captivate people with his bat. Which is, of course, exactly what he did a week later on a far more difficult pitch in Mumbai. That innings of 186 will never be forgotten by those who had the privilege to watch it.

When asked what he did different in the course of a breathtakingly aggressive innings, he offered a thoughtful answer. "I backed my defence," he said. But he didn't get consumed by it. Once his defence had taken him past a vulnerable phase, he unfurled his shots again. It was the turning point of the series. England won it but they also learnt how to live with Pietersen.

The best managers will tell you that the most effective way to handle such gifted mavericks is to befriend them and offer them challenges. Like everyone else they are in need of comfort, they want to be liked, their ego requires their achievement to be acknowledged. In effect they are asking for an inch, and if you grant them that, they are ready to deliver a mile. Seek to bottle them and they will turn headstrong.

You can see why Pietersen likes the IPL. He is left alone, he is paid well, the ego is gently stroked, but the franchise gets more out of him than most people think. For the Delhi Daredevils, Pietersen is value for money, not a luxury purchase.

In the Ashes he has looked happier, and his century* has contributed greatly to a series win. I don't know if it is an uneasy truce or there has been a warm embrace. His masterclass with Sky Sports reaffirmed what a thoughtful and hard-working cricketer he is. Cricket needs Pietersen as it needed Warne, and it needs leaders to understand their genius. Without their spice it will be a vanilla game.

05:18:11 GMT, August 16, 2013: The article originally said Pietersen had scored two centuries in the first four Tests of the Ashes

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

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