Matthew Norman: We're world-beaters when it comes to sporting incompetence

England's cricket authorities have just managed to boost Australia's morale
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The Independent Online

Long, long ago, in the days of streaking, when crass exhibitionism of the kind struck us as a vaguely amusing novelty rather than a central strand of the national character, a young man interrupted a Test match at Lord's by streaking across the turf. The Test Match Special box fell unwontedly silent for a moment, before a peerless radio commentator relocated his larynx.

"What a lot of fuss," murmured John Arlott in that mellifluous Hampshire beat bobby's burr of his, "about a little thing like that."

Were he with us today, I've a hunch that same thought might have flitted across Mr Arlott's supple mind yesterday as the melodramatics bubbled over the rim of the England dressing room and flooded the news bulletins.

It may be the case that Kevin Pietersen is not, in any rigorously technical sense, what Mr Arlott perhaps deliberately misnamed a "freaker". But there's no denying that the show-off who steered England to the 2005 Ashes with his hair styled into what struck the naked eye as a narcoleptic skunk has lately indulged in a spectacular bout of willy-waving.

Whether the manhood of his captaincy was lopped off by his own hand or by his England Cricket Board employers, the fine detail could scarcely matter less. If he resigned in dudgeon because his selection preferences for the imminent tour to the West Indes were ignored, or if the ECB fired him for publicly airing his distaste for the now former coach Peter Moores, is of as much interest as the background to a low-level ministerial departure.

The primary relevance of this tale, to a country with little residual passion for this most glorious of games, is the chance it offers to marvel afresh at the sublime incompetence of our sporting administrators ... a pecking order in which the ECB admittedly struggles in mid division.

The Football Association which appointed Steve McClaren as England coach and so spectacularly mishandled the redevelopment of Wembley remains the market leader, despite the perplexing loss of form that brought us Fabio Capello, but there are others who make the ECB look like amateurs when it comes to amateurishness.

There is, for example, the Jockey Club (or whatever this glorified nursing home for half witted in-bred ostriches now calls itself) that buried its hand in the sand over corruption for so long, and still affects to believe that horse racing is by and large squeaky clean.

God alone knows what hilarity awaits as the 2012 Olympics approach, but a final bill likely to quintuple the original budget so expertly contrived by Tessa Jowell and Ken Livingstone during a cosy hour on a sofa suggests no dearth. The precedent of the stadium at Pickett's Lock, chosen to host a world athletics championship before being abandoned, gives a flavour of what to expect.

You might have imagined that the use of the original Pickett's Lock as a setting for Frank Spencer's hilariously dyspraxic adventures in Some Mother Do 'Ave 'Em would have been a handy omen, but if so you underestimated the ability of such overseers to dip a hand into a honey pot and pull out a swarm of killer bees.

So the grizzled observer will not cry out for the smelling salts on discovering the Test squad gripped by internecine chaos just as Australia, so weakened by the loss of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, looked nicely placed to be beaten in this summer's Ashes.

One admires the ECB's thoughtfulness in giving those Aussies a morale boosting chuckle within days of them losing a home series, to Mr Pietersen's native South Africa, for the first time since 1703. Of course one does. Charity to Her Majesty's former colonies and dominions across the seas must be cherished. What we cannot admire is the choice of Mr Pietersen as captain in the first place, a decision of such translucent foolishness that the only shock about his departure is that it took so long (five months).

The precedent could not have been clearer. The chairman of the sports management firm that looks after his burgeoning commercial interests is Ian Botham, but the two have rather more in common than this business relationship. Both were the Test team's megastar performer when given the captaincy, and both enjoyed very short and traumatic spells in the post for this reason: the quality almost as essential as raw talent to brilliance in sport is the same monomaniacal self-regard that makes those who posses it pathologically ill suited to the demands of leadership.

It is, if so famously butter-fingered a fielder as Mr Pietersen will excuse the reference, a Catch 22, and explains the apparent paradox whereby the great footballers generally make lousy managers. The narcissism that fuels their individual excellence blinds them to the concerns of others and of the team. So it is with cricket.

Much the finest England captain of my lifetime was Mike Brearley, who (like Mr Pietersen's near-certain replacement Andrew Strauss) was nothing more than a solid opener for Middlesex and England. Yet as captain he was more valuable than any number of more lavishly gifted players because because he was such an astute reader of the game, and the masterly motivator who replaced Sir Ian as captain and instantly coaxed from him feats of such majesty that the 1981 series is known simply as Botham's Ashes.

We could do with Brearley in the dressing room now in his present role as a psychiatrist, because there's a head is in urgent need of shrinking. Mr Pietersen is a magnificent middle-order cavalier in the Botham mould, and so we must tolerate the cocktail of conceit and petulance that define him. Touch wood he continues serving his adoptive land with the murderous, hyper-confident batting that allowed him to make his maiden Test hundred under infinite pressure to secure the 2005 Ashes at the Oval.

If not, though, and should he flounce off to enrich himself with the Indian Premier League, so be it. However much it might wish to be so, with the instant gratification of Twenty20, cricket is not football, and Pieto's arrogant disbelief at the defiance of his will powerfully echoes Roy Keane's abrupt departure from the 2002 World Cup.

For all that, Mr Pietersen is a force of nature, so it makes no more sense to castigate him for being true to his instinctive self than to criticise Rupert Murdoch for adding to his empire or Elton John for throwing queeny tantrums. He is what he is, and every ounce of blame for this latest in an endless sequence of English sporting fiasco lies entirely with the ECB for not seeing what should have been abundantly plain to a partially sighted Tibetan yak.

The ECB are on quite a streak themselves right now, having not long ago given the same job to the team's other virtuoso Andrew Flintoff, with similarly farcical results; and recently they brought us the shambles involving the Texan letch Allen Stanford. If they can only keep it up for another year or two, in fact, the mighty FA itself will have to look to its laurels.