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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Brian on August 18, 2013, 20:39 GMT

    How sick am I of reading claptrap referring to people like Pietersen as a "genius". I know we are all supposed to be cricket fans, but let's try and live in the real world for a minute. Clonking a bit of leather with a bit of wood, no matter how many times and how efficiently you do it, can never make anyone a "genius", and certainly not the likes of Pietersen. Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Paulo Freire - now those are geniuses. Pietersen and his ilk in contrast are overpaid, overpraised and good for very little.

  • Android on August 17, 2013, 17:24 GMT

    one of the examples in terms of skills, character,guile,situation reading,perform when most needed, calm is one and only MS Dhoni. he achieved so much in cricket rather than century and controversy here and there. pieterson is nothing special in fact behind ian bell who proved with time his consistency and perform in need approach. piet is too over rated and big share is his stardom and media frenzy presence.

  • Subramani on August 17, 2013, 14:20 GMT

    Kevin Pietersen used to play for Kwa Zulu Natal in the South African domestic tournament, I think the Currie Cup. He was then an off spin bowler. In fact in the late 90s in England's game against Kwa Zulu Natal( Michael Vaughn was the captain of England then), Pietersen played as a bowler and did fairly well. The next i heard of him was when he came to India to play for the England Lions possibly in the early 2000s as a member of the tem invited to play in the Duleep trophy. He made a big mark and that is what has made him so liked in India apart from his having played for Royal Challengers and later Delhi Daredevils in the IPL. Then again when evry one was against the England team coming to India in the aftermath of the 26/11 tragedy, Kevin said that he was coming. That is what has perhaps made him so popular in India. He likes to be liked and recognised as being special. Like Botham. Brerley recognised him and he played so well. Pietersen is the same.His background will say why.

  • Lourens on August 17, 2013, 10:43 GMT

    @sarangsrk @colourpenguin You refer to the way that Pietersen disrespected his team and its members and how someone like Sachin gets respect while being a great player vs Pietersens need to work on his iage. But what came first: was it Pietersen's disrespect and badboy image or was it others who did not value him and disrespected him that came first. To me it appeared as a reaction to others who first disrespected him, and him being honest enough to call it as it is. If they valued him and gave him place to be himself his image and actions would have been different.

  • shashwata on August 17, 2013, 6:46 GMT

    @KingOwl : You said "How does one tell Jimmy Anderson that he does not deserve special treatment, that he is ordinary, that he does not deserve space ? "

    Now, just WHAT exactly made you say that about someone as humble, as straightforward and as no-nonsense as Jimmy Anderson id absolutely beyond me and pretty much everyone else.

    How does one tell YOU that even though Jimmy has been one of the most valuable players of this English team, that even though he is one of the best England cricketers of all time, that even though he is one of the top seamers in the world in the last decade, that even though he rightfully deserves all the space that he gets and maybe even more, the fact remains that he doesn't want to be given a special treatment. That he wants to be miles away from any controversy or trash talk. That he is not an attention seeker. That he is absolutely pleased wih the space that he gets and wants no more of it whatsoever !!

  • Dummy4 on August 17, 2013, 4:52 GMT

    More than anything I like the way Harsha b has presented it. Like KP, he too needs some credit.

  • Roshan on August 17, 2013, 4:38 GMT

    Good Article Harsha ! I think more than the Cricket Board it's role of Coach and Captain to handle notorious but effective talents like KP, Warne, Afridi or Virat. One should learn from how Ponting held together one of the best talents of Modern era in likes of Warne, McGrath, Hayden, Gilchrist, Lee and many more. As a leader you simply give them your tasks and should not follow it like tution teacher day and night. This guys will surely deliver for you, just give them their space and respect they need. It's very hard to maintain and retain good talent because most of them are like that only. With no disregard to players like Dravid, Kallis or Misbah, but cricket really needs players like Afridi and KP to keep interest of viewers. It's their different character that makes this game alive.

  • David on August 17, 2013, 4:28 GMT

    @ class9ryan. You wrote that "one of the underrated innings of his is that against a bowling unit boasting of Steyn, Morkel and Philander on a pitch where Cook, Strauss, Trott,etc failed at Lords."

    KP did not play in the SA vs Eng test at Lords. The ECB dropped him ……. and the Mace!

  • David on August 17, 2013, 4:14 GMT

    Follow the money. Always follow the money.

    KP generates lots of income for cricket teams. He is a valuable brand, & sponsors love him because he draws TV viewers. The ECB's REAL problem was that in the IPL, KP makes loads of cash for Dehli, & NOT FOR THE ECB!! Their sponsors were not happy. Sky was not happy. They had paid for Brand KP! The ECB's stance was a message to THEIR clients - don't worry, we'll rein in the cash cow!

    Then the ECB scored an own goal, & DROPPED the cash cow!! Their clients must have hit the roof, & they had to scramble to get him back. Collier tried to "wag the dog" by blaming SA for 'textgate.' Brilliant - yet another round of bad press & some groveling. The final blow? ESPN Star Sports hired KP as a TV commentator for the World T20, & he ended up working for the competition!!! A textbook management disaster, perfect for the MBA course in "How to Get all the Staff AND the Clients in a Tizzy."

    Its not about KP. Its about BRAND KP.

    Follow the money!

  • abhijeet on August 17, 2013, 4:11 GMT

    @ThyrSaadam." some of them are conformists, who dont really rebel". The problem is they will soon start rebelling when they see KP being given special treatment.