May 20, 2014

How much talent does the difficult player need?

Exceptionally gifted but unreliable players are often given lots of rope by management, but far too many seem to believe themselves to be deserving of that leeway

It's been a mixed week for sportsmen out of love with the authorities. Michael Carberry, overlooked after the Ashes tour, publicly stated his frustrations about a lack of communication from the selectors. Many assumed that Carberry, aged 33, had signed his own death warrant and would never play for England again. But the selectors have made a shrewd decision in recalling him. He is a decent, understated man; the England management now looks magnanimous in overlooking a few surprising quotes in a newspaper.

No such luck for Samir Nasri, the wonderfully gifted but moody French footballer. He has been left out of France's World Cup squad. France's coach, Didier Deschamps, explained his decision with bracing honesty: "He's a regular starter at Manchester City. That's not the case today with the France team. And he also said he's not happy when he's a substitute. I can tell you that you can feel it in the squad." Deschamps went further, anticipating his critics by conceding that Nasri was more talented than some players he had selected: "It's not necessarily the 23 best French players, but it's the best squad in my eyes to go as far as possible in this competition."

Talent v unity: an old story.

Rugby union, though, has also brought two mavericks back into the fold. Gavin Henson, Wales' troubled but mercurial playmaker, looks set to return to the red jersey. And England's Danny Cipriani, another flair player who has never found a happy home wearing national colours, has been thrown a lifeline. A last chance that both Henson and Cipriani cannot afford to miss? I bet they have heard that before. And then been handed just one final, last chance. That's often the way with rare talent: different rules apply.

As always, these debates have generally descended into an argument about abstract principles. Pundits have rushed to say that French football has a problem with finding a home for left-field characters. Other have bridled at Deschamps' logic: who should be happy being put on the bench anyway? It is the job of managers, we are often told, to finesse and handle talented but unconventional personalities. Indeed, with a moment's reflection, anyone can produce a list of world-beating players who didn't conform to a coach's template for a model professional - from Diego Maradona to Andrew Flintoff.

Such a list, sadly, proves absolutely nothing. Because it is just as easy to find examples of teams that began a winning streak by leaving out a talented but unreliable star player. The French team that won the World Cup in 1998 left out both David Ginola and Eric Cantona, just as the current side have now omitted Nasri.

In the popular imagination, the argument about dropping and recalling star players revolves around the juicy, gossipy questions: how difficult are they, how does their awkwardness manifest itself, has anyone tried to talk them round? This is naturally intriguing stuff. But the other half of the question - the crucial half - is too often ignored. Quite simply, how much better are they than the next guy?

When mavericks slide from outright brilliance to mere high competence they find patience runs out alarmingly quickly. There is a lot of high competence around. It is replaceable. Not so genuine brilliance

If you are a lot better, it is amazing how forgiving sports teams can be. Luis Suarez was banned for eight games for racially abusing Patrice Evra. He then served another ten-match ban for biting a Chelsea player. Obviously Liverpool sacked him instantly on the grounds that he was bringing the club into disrepute and becoming a distraction from the task of winning football matches? No, they didn't do anything of the kind. They calculated that Suarez was the best chance, their only chance, of mounting a challenge for trophies. If Suarez had been Liverpool's sixth- or seventh-best player, rather than their star man, he would have been kicked out years ago.

In other words, the best protection from being dropped for being "difficult" is to be brilliant. Even as a young man, England midfielder Paul Gascoigne was a heavy drinker and an unreliable man. But he was a sensational footballer. Coaches put up with him because they calculated it was in their own and the team's rational self-interest. By the latter stages of his career, Gascoigne was still a heavy drinker and an unreliable man, but he was now only occasionally an excellent footballer. Glenn Hoddle felt Gascoigne was too unfit to play at the 1998 World Cup. The glass was half-empty.

When mavericks slide from outright brilliance to mere high competence they find patience runs out alarmingly quickly. There is a lot of high competence around. It is replaceable. Not so genuine brilliance. That is why Shane Warne was able to criticise Australia coach John Buchanan and (nearly) always stay in the team. Any rational man who asked himself the question: "Are Australia a better team with Warne in it?" came to the unavoidable conclusion: "Yes, definitely."

Here's the central point. At this exalted level of elite sport, a great number of players have an epic degree of self-belief. Being convinced of their own greatness is an aspect of their magic. They back themselves to shape the match, to determine its destiny - especially the big matches. Instead of seeing themselves as just one of a number of exceptionally talented players, in their own minds they are men apart, special cases.

They aren't always right, though. So the question becomes: how good, how difficult? They are two aspects of the same equation, a calculation that is being made every day by coaches all over the world - on the school pitch, in the reserves squad, all the way to the World Cup final.

A player, too, must make his own calculation. Would pretending to be someone else - a more compliant, easy-going man - centrally detract from my performances? Must I play on my own terms, behaving as I like? But this question must coexist with another, less comfortable one: am I good enough to get away with it?

Not many. Fewer, certainly, than the number who think they can.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Arun on May 22, 2014, 0:18 GMT

    @jackiethepen: Tendulkar may not have been difficult in the sense of a prima-donna(a la Shoaib, KP, Ryder,a young Ponting, etc) but he was extremely inflexible. He consistently refused to bat at #4 in ODI's when the team need him to bolster the middle-order. When forced to do so, I recall him complaining to the media that #1 was the spot he made the most runs, and that's where he belonged. In tests, it was the opposite: he refused to open the batting, claiming the #4 spot all to himself. There is no other player in the Indian side who's clung on to a position regardless of personal form or team needs. And then, there's that infamous (IMHO correct) Dravid declaration in Multan that left him stranded on 194*. He made no attempt to score fast to get to 200. India won the match with Sehwag making 300+. SRT complains to the media that he was "disappointed" not to get 200. Anyone else would be in hot water for such a statement, but not him. Bad form might get lesser mortals dropped. Not Him.

  • Jackie on May 21, 2014, 14:55 GMT

    It's a romantic idea but not necessary right. Difficult and talent don't necessarily go hand in hand. Shakespeare famously was described as the 'sweet swan of avon' by fellow poet Ben Jonson. Tendulkhar wasn't difficult. Bell is talented but reckoned to be one of the nicest guys in cricket. Mozart was said to be giggly and easy going. Beethoven on the other hand was famously difficult. Shelley was thought to be too nice by his friends, including bad boy Byron. Perhaps each individual has to be judged on their merits. If they cross the line they need to be either coaxed back or sacked depending on whether to coach is difficult/nice.

  • Dummy4 on May 21, 2014, 13:27 GMT

    why is everyone assuming the article is all about KP? or to quote Ballotelli, "why always him?"

  • rob on May 21, 2014, 8:59 GMT

    I think it's becoming harder and harder to be an old school ratbag these days. In the 60's and 70's there were many more 'characters' around mainly because there was much less media and it wasn't as intrusive as it is now. These days all it takes is a mobile phone, the wrong place, the wrong time, and wham. The entire world might know about your little 'indiscretion' in 5 minutes flat. .. a careless word or deed in an unguarded moment goes viral. How many have we seen that lately.

    I think Dave Warner has already proven to be as difficult as Warne. Warne never tried to punch anyone as far as I know, so maybe there's a case for saying Warner's even worse. It's going to interesting to see how CA manage him.

    As for KP, I think Ed's right on the money again. Effort V Reward got just too much to bear it seems. Anyway, I predict he will play for England again. Maybe not in Tests, more likely next years 50 over WC.

  • sam on May 21, 2014, 4:50 GMT

    Talent,and those that border on the extreme special kind that shows greatness is a v irreplaceable commodity in this game. Or for that matter any sport,not just cricket. Simply put it can't be done away with entirely even if such players come with a 'price' that is mentioned here. Warne's is classic eg.Coming to K Peterson ,think in his case the whole talent thing is bit of a myth,and blown up somewhat.I mean a batsman in no clue whatsoever against left arm spin-even those that don't turn,or even avg. 1s - cant be that. Eng mgmt. certainly knew something. The IPL now just supports the fact.

  • Paul on May 20, 2014, 22:39 GMT

    Not a bad article, but I think it has a fundamental misinterpretation as its central point. The player's impact on the team has less to do with their individual brilliance and more to do with how they lead and influence the players around them. This is why Warne was given a lot of leeway and KP little. You can behave as badly as you like, as long as it doesn't isolate you from your team-mates. Cricket isn't obviously a team sport on the field, but it requires a lot of time spent off-field with your team-mates and you can't underestimate the importance of team spirit.

  • Android on May 20, 2014, 21:11 GMT

    Excellent article. The point that hits me the most is the role of coaches/manager in a team sport. Cricket for example has a coaching staff with a head coach. Often ex cricketers have pointed out that there is not a lot of technical skill that can be taught at the highest level. Thus effectively he has a major managerial role and one very important aspect of it is to make a egotistical player understand the value of playing for the team. So Didier Deschamps leaving out Nasri for reasons other than form is actually his failure as a manager. Gary Kirstens biggest contribution to Indian cricket was that he motivated Shewag to play for the team and not for himself, which benefitted him( he had his best phase during his tenure) and Indian cricket team.

  • Dummy4 on May 20, 2014, 16:18 GMT

    Cantona retired in 97, so France didn't leave him out as he wasn't available to leave out in the first place. His international career ended largely as a result of his 8 month suspension in 95.

  • Michael on May 20, 2014, 16:12 GMT

    There's clearly no-one in the England side now who could do exactly what KP at his brilliant best can do - though Morgan and Buttler can do very similar things in limited-over cricket. But, as followers of the Delhi Daredevils will know, KP doesn't perform at his brilliant best that often these days - even with the captaincy and a coach he apparently thinks the world of.

    For all those who think that the England management should have bent over backwards to keep him in the fold, the question is really whether they would back KP to be the top performer in the England side over a period of time. That might well have been the case 3-4 years ago, but neither Cook nor Bell are incapable, and both have done more to win Tests over the last couple of years than KP did. And if he isn't delivering more than Bell or Cook, why should he be given more latitude than them?

  • Dummy4 on May 20, 2014, 14:38 GMT

    Sorry football and rugby are not the same type of games as cricket. Individual performances define a cricket side, rugby is the ultimate team game where you could literally owe you life to the man next to you! Poor Article in my opinion!

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