The dilemmas of talent management. The case of Kevin Pietersen

May 13, 2015

KPIn the space of a week, Kevin Pietersen, cricket’s most talented and controversial figure, scored a record number of runs and learned that he would not be selected for the England test team

Great individual talent sometimes requires great talent management. Kevin Pietersen’s international cricket career is a prime example.

The English cricket establishment has since his arrival on the scene struggled with the challenge of harnessing the exceptional talent of Kevin Pietersen and dealing with assorted off-field controversies.

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Strauss resigns as England Captain as pundits duck the tough questions

August 29, 2012

England cricket captain Andrew Strauss resigns after a series defeat and yet more off-field controversies. For several weeks, multiple former captains now turned into pundits adverse comments. They also rarely mentioned the decisions of the selectors who had first appointed Andrew Flintoff and then Kevin Pietersen in advance of Andrew Strauss

There are too many armchair pundits of cricket and I don’t want to add myself to the list. I feel a bit more comfortable in examining what has been said and written by those who have themselves played for and captained the England cricket team.

An unlucky General?

Over his three years of captaincy Strass led his team to the top of the international rankings, including wins over the previously near-invincible Australians. He has also been beset with off-the-field controversies which were outside his control. They included match fixing, accusations of ball-tampering, and much bad temper between England and Pakistan cricket authorities in particular. Napoleon might have said he had been an unlucky General.

Pressure mounts

As pressure mounted on out-of-form Strauss, the commentators began to dwell on his batting failures. Then, recently [Aug 2012] Pietersen (a South African by birth) was forced out of the England team after his disrespectful texts about Strauss to members of the South African team, the current opponents who were well on the way to replacing England as the highest ranked team.

Don’t scare the horses

The Pietersen affair produced a switch of tone from the commentators who seemed to avoid the slightest of adverse comments on Andrew Strauss’s capabilities. No one wanted to spook the selectors by remarking on the weaknesses of his captaincy. In real-time, the commentators had often said or implied his on-field decision-making was cautious and unimaginative. Now they were lining up to say he was one of the best England captains of recent times.

Why? The comments suggest that he was articulate and calm while dealing with the press (better than Flintoff or Pietersen). He had the confidence and loyalty of the players. (Except for the rogue horse Pietersen). He had also forged good relationship with coaches and administrators. Not bad, but are they necessary and sufficient criteria for success as a captain?

How to assess a captain

This evidence supports the view that Strauss was a quiet and rather uncharismatic individual, perhaps fitting the profile of a level five leader who is ‘modest but of fierce resolve’.

Such leaders are often only noticed in hindsight, and tend to be overlooked in selection processes which favour the gifted, the extraverted, and the charismatic. In other words, people like Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen.

Learning from practice

It seems likely that the selectors have learned from the earlier appointments. The new captain Alistair Cook is closer to Strauss in temperament than to the cavaliers of yore mentioned above, and was being groomed for the job.

Picking England’s new cricket captain: How not to do it

August 3, 2008

The principles of leader succession are rather straightforward. We examine the search for a successor for Michael Vaughan as England’s cricket captain

Something had to be done. The wilting English cricket team had lost its first series against South Africa since 1965.

The team’s batting had failed yet again. The contribution from Captain Michael Vaughan, recovering from serious injuries, remained unacceptable.

That being said, his critical captaincy decisions (who to bowl when, what field placings to set) were widely rated as excellent

The axe fell [August 3rd 2008] . Vaughan proffered his resignation less than a day after the series defeat.

It seems that he had reached the decision without selectorial nudge. Nevertheless, the unspeakable was being spoken in the run-up to the defeat, from the former England Captains now in the press corps. He saved the selectors from making a difficult decision.

What the selectors rent asunder they now seek to put together

Some while ago, the selectors, worried about Vaughan’s form, split the roles of one-day and five-day captains, presumably hoping the decision would take some pressure off Vaughan. The one-day results of the team was (and remains) worse than the five-day results. Vaughan’s five-day form remained poor.

Traditional wisdom is that such an arrangement brings with it more problems than it solves. Under the new one-day Captain Paul Collingwood, results remained underwhelming. To add to the selectors’ difficulties Collingwood’s form dropped off. He is currently serving a ban for some recent captaincy misdemenours.

The selectors now seem to want to put back together the roles of one-day and five-day captain. Unfortunate that Collingwood was nearly omitted from this last game for poor form. (His century may or may not have bought him a respite in the team). Fortunate that he decided to resign as well today…

The form of most of the five-day batsmen remains patchy enough to exclude them from consideration. The one resident team member whose batting would be considered adequate to retain him a place in the team is the controversial figure of Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen has the selfishness of many great individual sportsmen. His triumphs are personal, and his interview claims of commitment to the team unconvincing. To make it worse, Pieterson demonstrated his ability scoring 94 in the crucial second innings of this latest match, and then attempted to reach his century with a mighty blow. For some, it captured why he was too ego-driven to be considered as captain.

Pietersen for captain

But Pietersen retains his advocates. His ability to dominate a bowling attack is taken as a prime consideration for leading from the front. In an earlier post we explored why Geoffrey Boycott, a hapless captain himself, has recently argued the case for Pietersen.

Another more reflective former captain, Michael Atherton, today reached the same conclusion. But Atherton reached his conclusion by eliminating the other candidates within the team for batting inadequacies.

If you’re talking about someone to take on both jobs then Kevin Pietersen becomes the number one candidate,” said former England skipper Atherton.
“He’s one of the few people who can be guaranteed their place in both teams.”

What’s a captain for?

I can’t help wondering whether there is a consensus on just what a Cricket captain is for.

To many influential figures in the game, the answer is to be found in the game’s cultural heritage. The captain came from the ranks of the gentlemen amateurs, whose privileged position was established by breeding and education. The related romantic theme was that of the captain as natural gentleman. Clive Lloyd and Garfield Sobers of the West Indies come to mind. Arguably, Don Bradman of Australia. Hardly surprising they went on to become knights of the realm.

A captain is there (according to this view) to uphold the traditions of the great game. Oh, and losing from time to time is OK, as long as it’s done gloriously.

Ah yes, a man’s grasp must exceed his reach, or what’s a captain for?

Meanwhile, we await the next set of decisions from the selectors.

‘Arise Sir Kevin.’ Doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

Selectors agree with Boycott and appoint Pietersen England captain.

June 28, 2008

When the England Cricket Selectors were considering a one-day captain to replace Michael Vaughan, pundit Geoffrey Boycott tipped Kevin Pietersen. Eventually, the selectors saw it Boycott’s way

At the time of Geoffrey’s recommendation, a Leaders we deserve post was unkind about Boycott’s choice. Boycott’s judgment, and even his motivation for backing Pietersen were disparaged.

Boycott was a brilliant opening bat, and now is a trenchant and insightful commentator. He was also arguably the worse cricket captain of England in modern times. What can we make of his judgement in this case?

The England selectors did not see it Boycott’s way. Most TMC pundits agreed. They all went for Paul Collingwood.

In the original post, there was a pinch of Jungian psychology, and the dour Boycott was accused of backing his shadow-self, the flamboyant Pietersen. Collingwood was seen as the safe pair of hands.

Collingwood has had a rather unsuccessful captaincy. His stock declined further this week after accusations of playing against the spirit of cricket. This coincided with a ban for failing to achieve the overs rate, both charges arising at a critical stage of the one day series against New Zealand.

The Selectors turn to Pietersen

Kevin Pietersen promised to captain England according to his “gut instincts” in the final one-dayer against New Zealand at Lord’s
Pietersen, who will deputize for the banned Paul Collingwood, admitted he had “zilch” experience of the role
“I think I’ll be a similar captain to the kind of person I am – I’ll be calm, pretty chilled and let my gut instincts and feelings guide me.”

It’s a very old leadership question. Do the circumstances favour flair over reliability? For Boycott it was flair. We now have a chance to see whether that view will be justified.