At all times a team must endeavour to put its best players on the field. You could occasionally stretch the definition of “best” and argue about players on the day against particular opposition in certain conditions but that would at best take out the odd player. The only time you leave out one of your best is if he is unfit or is damaging the interests of the rest of the players. In short, if he is such a disturbing influence on the side that the other ten would much rather not play.
So why this slightly text-bookish start to an article? Because I am trying to see how England could have told Kevin Pietersen that he can no longer play for them. In my experience, through watching sport and seeing managers, players like to play with others who win them matches. If they don’t like them, they learn to co-exist because there isn’t a team in the world that doesn’t have people who can’t stand one another. I’m sure there must even be monks who dislike each other!
In sport, where you play with extreme passion and insecurity, and the two are often inseparable, emotions are on the edge and you are competing with each other as much as with the opposition. But as long as everyone wants the team to win, you are often all right. It was true of the great West Indies teams and even truer of the Australians who were winning everything in sight in the last decade. Not everyone in that Australian team liked each other but they realised they had to play together to win. They didn’t always have affection, but they had respect.
The job of the leader is often to ensure that the rivalry within a side doesn’t get so intense as to disrupt it, prevent a situation where players start hoping that team-mates fail so they don’t have to be with them any longer. It is not as improbable as it seems. And so the leader has to be firm and diplomatic. He must give an inch here and demand a pound there; allow some freedom occasionally and rein players in sometimes. And he must realise that sometimes players don’t like another because they are not good enough for the challenge. Those are the players that must go, not those that are provocative.
Of course the leader must draw a line in the sand beyond which certain behaviour is inadmissible. But that line has to be very carefully drawn because you don’t want passionate warriors to be cast away in favour of submissive soldiers.
The question that Andrew Strauss had to answer was whether Kevin Pietersen had crossed that line in the sand. He also needed to consider whether the time away from England had caused more fires to rage within Pietersen and whether those could be used to cut through the opposition. I am not very good at deal-making but I suspect Kevin Pietersen was a deal waiting to be made. He wanted desperately to play for England again and in such a state people are willing to give a lot to get what they crave for. I know I am saying this from a distance but I think Strauss has just let a great bargain go on his first day at work.
The easiest thing when in power is to let egos dictate decision making. But if you run a proprietorship, or a dictatorship, you can get away with it. If you are honoured with the opportunity of carrying the trust of many million fans, you are mandated to put ego aside and do what is best for the team. The easiest thing is to drop the trouble-maker. That is a cop-out.
You do want nice guys in the side. But you want tough guys too. In a team the tough often get more respect than the nice. I am not suggesting England doesn’t have tough players. Cook and Anderson couldn’t have been as successful otherwise. But to drop dissenting players is a bad message to send out. Very often, dissent comes from the pride of performance and you want that.
England needed Pietersen. They had to find a way to use him even if that meant conceding some territory in search of a higher objective. I believe they have taken the easier decision. To the detriment of the team!.