Kevin Pietersen: A morality play when England take the field...

After Kevin Pietersen is told, again, that his international career is over, Simon Barnes ponders the English distrust of maverick talent

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The Independent Online

Hell is other people. The problem is that we all need the buggers. There’s hardly a thing you can do in life without them: playing cricket, running a business, earning a living, involving yourself in life, love and family: no matter what you’re up to, other people keep cropping up.

Giving you a dilemma. Do you only bother with the easy ones, the soft touches, the doormats, the yes-persons, the three-bags-fullers? Or do you have dangerous dealings with people who have ideas of their own?

In the eponymous film, The Commitments were a great band but Deco, the lead singer, was a dickhead. So they all fell out with him, the whole band collapsed and everybody lost. It’s a process known as Musical Differences.

Sport dramatises this elementary dilemma better than anything else in public life. Do you want a team of honest triers, selfless in their understanding of team ethic? Or do you include a number of difficult but talented individuals?

There’s no “I” in “team”... a formula that results in the bland leading the bland. If you only pick the easy guys, you must drop Shane Warne, one of the finest bowlers in cricket history, and you must pick your football team without Diego Maradona, Johann Cruyff, George Best or Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Surrey’s Kevin Pietersen walks off at the Oval after finishing on 355 not out

It’s about ambition. If you want to run a highly effective organisation, you must accommodate some unaccommodating but talented people… and then make sure the rest of the team accepts them. After that, you have to judge when or if their concessions become counterproductive.

So that brings us – oh God – right back to Kevin Pietersen. If you want to mismanage a tricky but talented individual, the KP Affair provides an unimprovable template… while Pietersen has flamboyantly demonstrated the worst possible way for the misfit to play his hand.

So here’s a tip for all coaches and administrators: try and remember you’re running a sporting operation, not a morality play. You and the team will be judged on results, not on your idea of virtue.

Sport and morality are always getting confused, and most often on the issue of The Team. Victorian educationists loved sport because it taught unquestioning obedience to authority and the virtues of sinking self into common cause: best way to produce manly chaps to run the Empire.

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Matt Le Tissier barely got a chance for England

Part of sport still hasn’t moved on – and you can double that whenever an England team is involved. England has a long history of discarding the talented misfit and over-promoting the straightforward fitter-inner. It’s not a sporting but a moral decision: at some atavistic level, fitting in is seen as a virtue. And not fitting in is a kind of sin.

England dropped Paul Gascoigne. England dropped David Gower. Matt Le Tissier was hardly even tried, nor was Stan Bowles. The England football team of the early 1980s was built round the worthy Bryan Robson rather than the brilliant Hoddle. The England rugby team dropped Danny Cipriani and forced him into exile. Phil Edmonds was for years kept out of the England cricket team.

England tradition is based on the notion that it’s more important to have the right type of character than the best kind of talent. It’s the recipe for Team Prufrock: a team full of attendant lords, always ready to swell a prologue and start a scene or two, but often found wanting at the highest level. Never trust a maverick: default position of the people who run the England team in just about every sport.

High talent isn’t invariably associated with a difficult nature – and certainly not vice versa – but it’s a common enough phenomenon. And you need talent if you are to get anywhere, in sport or anything else. It’s like the joke in the Woody Allen film: “My brother thinks he’s a chicken.” “Why don’t you turn him in?” “Because I need the eggs.”

Over the last 10 years England have needed the eggs that Pietersen laid. He played three of the greatest match-altering innings I have ever seen: Oval 2005, Adelaide 2010, Mumbai 2012. Along the way he was made captain (like making the bad boy a prefect) and then reduced to the ranks, while his team colleagues revelled in the wounding fake Twitter account @KPgenius. Then he was fired from the team: first player that’s happened to.

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Andrew Strauss there were "massive turst issues" with Pietersen

He’s also been as big a dickhead as Deco. He sent texts to the opposition telling them how to get his own captain out and “wrote” the vilest autobiography in the history of sport: nobody who read a page could fail to have sympathy for anyone who ever had dealings with the alleged author.

He was then told that if he scored a mountain of runs in county cricket he would be considered for England again, though it’s now being said that nothing was actually promised. He was 355 not out for Surrey when England fired him all over again. For explicitly moral reasons: “massive trust issues”.

You can take Pietersen’s side against the Establishment or the Establishment’s side against Pietersen, but all that tells us is what kind of a person you are. What we really have here is a horrible irresolvable inherited mess. A plague on both their houses: there are no victims here; everyone is wrong. It’s called Musical Differences. No wonder the band broke up.

And that’s a dreadful warning to everyone who thinks there’s only one kind of valid person in sport. Or, for that matter, life.

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