Kevin Pietersen and England: The team will always beat the individual

Pietersen was the ultimate soloist within the group and, writes Kevin Garside, left England with no choice but to go into bat for the collective

If you are going to walk the plank you might as well make a splash. Kevin Pietersen has detonated the biggest water bomb in the history of English cricket. From the low born to the First Lord of the Treasury, the nation has had its say on the execution of England’s heaviest runscorer in all forms of the game.

He would rather have kept his place at the crease, no doubt, yet it would not be a stretch to imagine Pietersen warming his hands in the heat generated by his England post-mortem. It reinforces the view he has of himself, a unique talent worthy of special consideration, a player to be indulged for the genius he brings to the piece.

This is the reasoning of the child, of course. Any parent who has marked out a pitch, set out the wickets, laid out the cones will recognise the swagger of the “gifted one” and suffered the petulance. Reconciling the “me” reflex with the interests of the group is a fundamental dynamic at the heart not only of the team but of life.

Pietersen would have been a gift to those early 19th century philosophers, social theorists and politicians, wrestling with a new world order. The feudal system was in retreat, the head of a monarch had rolled in Paris, migration from country to town to service the needs of a burgeoning industrial age was in full swing, trampling underfoot the influence of the church. A new script was required that made sense of the chaos.

What they would not have given for a populist example that broadly encapsulated the points they wished to make. There were no sporting heroes to piggyback in the manner of David Cameron when Europe was convulsing two centuries ago. Louis Veuillot was writing about social order in post-revolutionary France. He might have been addressing the cult of Our Kev. “The evil which plagues France is not unknown; everyone agrees in giving it the same name: individualism.

“It is not difficult to see that a country where individualism reigns is no longer in the normal conditions of society, since society is the union of minds and interests, and individualism is division carried to the infinite degree. All for each, each for all, that is society; each for himself, and thus each against all, that is individualism.”

You can guess where Veuillot would have stood in the Pietersen debate. This train of thought was not against personal development and self-expression but the rampant egoism that ultimately brought Pietersen down; hubris by any other name, a corrosive and ultimately destructive force that undermines authority and brotherhood.

Pietersen did not last anywhere long, his outrageous gifts ultimately proving not worth the bother in Natal, Nottingham, Hampshire and now with England. His apologists rail at his sacking, arguing that as England’s best player Pietersen should be at the heart of any rebuilding. This ignores the fact that a team with him in it was thumped by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, beaten at home by South Africa and suffered the most catastrophic drubbing in Australia.

A team can be so much more, or less in England’s case, than the sum of its parts. If it is the case that some players, simply by pulling on the shirt, can lift the performance of others, Roy Keane would be one example at Manchester United, then it follows that others can have a negative effect on the group. Keane was never the most technically gifted to wear the red of United but the team was always better for his inclusion for he brought out of others a higher level of performance.

This was demonstrably not the case with Pietersen for England. He has not been jettisoned because he cannot bat. There has, arguably, never been any player in the game do what he has, arriving on our shores as an off-spinner batting at eight and leaving the scene as the fourth highest run-maker in English Test history.

There is a queue of English Test batsmen, including former captains Michael Atherton and Vaughan, who will tell you that Pietersen is the best they have seen. But this did not protect against disaster when the ego became inflamed and counter-productive.

The ugly betrayal of his captain, Andrew Strauss, in the text correspondence with his blood brothers in the South African team, the fateful misreading of the purpose of the meeting during the fourth Test in Melbourne, convened at the behest of the coach Andy Flower, to allow the players to address their own failings, condemn him. In each case Pietersen went his own way against the prevailing sentiment.

In an interview given to the BBC’s Mark Pougatch he defended his approach in the middle. He would never adjust his style to meet the requirements of the team. It was not in his nature to play any other way. Bunkum, of course. A player of Pietersen’s gifts and range can choose to play a shot any way he likes. That’s what makes him special. But his first thoughts were always for himself, not the team. Effectively he was saying to the skipper, the coach, the selectors and his team-mates, “Sorry I won’t do what you ask of me. This is me, this is who and what I am, take it or leave it”.

He has had his response. Team KP will get over it. As will England. It is a pity Pietersen was unable to leave adolescence behind. We are in the age of the sporting deity, an epoch that throws great wealth and fame at young men at an impossibly early age. Is it any wonder that many fail to manage the distortions that warp their environment, persuading them that they really are the gods they read about?

Most well-adjusted individuals grow out of it. Maybe Pietersen will mature in parenthood. There is nothing quite like the nurturing power of nature to wean us off our perch at the centre of the universe. Maybe he will recognise in the behaviour and tantrums of his three-year-old son, Dylan, that the selfishness he exhibits in his professional life is best suited to the school playground.

It is an ironic quirk of his fall that criticism should be led by a cricketer who had and retains an even greater regard for his own abilities than KP. Yes dear, old Geoffrey Boycott sent him packing with both boots in a newspaper column on Thursday, arguing with some force that the silly shots that cost him his wicket so irresponsibly in Australia resulted from a superiority complex that was not only unacceptable but could no longer be contained.  

In the period of mourning at Arsenal following the departure of Thierry Henry to Barcelona a young man put his hand up to express his relief at Henry’s going and gratitude for the opportunity it represented. Who would argue that Cesc Fabregas did not prosper in Henry’s wake? He flourished in the space left behind, uninhibited by the presence of the “one”. Privately players have expressed unease at Pietersen’s reluctance to connect off the pitch, frustration with a man who preferred his own company to theirs. This is the invisible glue that binds a team.

Pietersen’s exile is an invitation to the next generation of England players to pick up the baton and run, while remembering that a cricket race is not won by one man alone. There are 10 other blokes out there bowling, batting, catching, and, as a consequence of pulling in the same direction, winning more than they lose.

Divider of opinions great and good on KP

* Anti KP

Geoffrey Boycott How do you teach youngsters to bat sensibly when the best player plays the most stupid strokes? It is impossible

Michael Atherton It was coming. Ultimately he found himself friendless

Nasser Hussain Wherever he has been he has been a problem

* Pro KP

David Cameron I am an enormous fan. Some of my most enjoyable times have been watching him tonking the ball all over the park

Ian Botham I’m baffled, exasperated and disgusted. [The ECB’s] handling has been pathetic

Piers Morgan Our greatest ever batsman made scapegoat. Spineless losers at the ECB.

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