The Kevin Pietersen Affair

In an earlier post, I reflected on a game I have loved and followed since I was a boy – cricket. I discussed how quickly the fortunes of teams can change. I gave the example of when in the Summer of 2013 England convincingly retained the Ashes, playing a series against Australia on English soil, yet a few months later they were overwhelmingly defeated by Australia when playing on Australian soil, even though the teams were much the same.

Following the humiliation, inevitably questions were asked why the reversal of fortunes and what was needed to bring England, which a short time previously had been deemed to be the number one team in the world, back on track and back into winning ways. One of the decisions made by England selectors was to axe Kevin Pietersen from the squad, even though he was arguably England’s best batsman at the time and had been the highest run accumulator in the series that had just been contested, and with a lot of cricket left in him. While on one hand the decision was astonishing, given that he had performed better than most of his team mates on the field, given his cantankerous and prickly nature and reputation and a history of skirmishes with authority, it was perhaps not such a surprise and understandably the team management might want rid of him given what they saw as his disruptive influence on the team.

As a cricket fan, I was aware there were personality conflicts between Pietersen and the management, and some of his team mates but, without being cognizant of all the facts, I was reluctant to take sides and regretted it had come to this because like any fan it is the cricket and my team doing well that really mattered. Like many, I was a great admirer of Pietersen the player. He first came into the England side when playing against Australia in 2005 and played a key part in the series and the next 5 that were to follow. In all England won 4 of the 6 series Pieterson contested (since 1882, England had won 31, Australia 32, with 5 drawn). This is particularly significant given before 2005 England had played 8 series (since 1989) against the old enemy and had lost them all and, as any English cricket lover knows, such memories do not sit comfortably.

When Pietersen first came into the side, I questioned if this was the right decision, given this was a relatively unknown player who was taking the place of one of its established stars – Graham Thorpe. But I was to be proved wrong. His century in the final test, for exampled, which meant England could draw the match and thereby win the series, was brilliant, as were a number of his innings that followed. It is this that one would want to remember Pietersen by and sadly it has been overshadowed by the events that were to follow.

When Pietersen was ousted from the team earlier in the year, many felt this may have been the end of the matter and the general feeling was to draw a line on what had gone on and move on. Pietersen was bound by a gagging order not to speak about what happened, at least until the week just gone, but with the order lifted, and with the publishing of his book, old wounds were re-opened, as Pietersen shared his thoughts, which many felt for the sake of fairness was needed, such as (in his opinion) a bullying culture existing in the England team, led by self appointed cliques with clout, and it was this that many fans were only barely aware off.

While not bullied directly himself, one incident around a parody Twitter account that had Pieterson as the subject, ran from the dressing room and involving some of his team mates, did disturb him and in his view went far beyond the customary banter and leg pulling we might expect. Some of Pietersen’s criticisms against key members of the England setup were rather scathing and is something I would try to avoid if put in that position. What followed was an understandable reaction and an acrimonious row, with current and former players expressing views ranging from complete support to outright opposition of Pietersen’s position.

Having been on the receiving end of bullying in my earlier life, I tend to be extra sensitive when I learn of incidents of it happening now. Without having been a fly on the wall, I can’t say for sure if there was or wasn’t bullying taking place, but my hunch is that somehow Pietersen, with his strong individualism, did not quite go along with the flow and that some of the team, and in particular the management, did not know how best to handle him. One quality I note in the best team managers is that of bringing out the best in individuals and getting team members to put aside differences and work together in the best interests of the team. One of the things I have found increasingly important is to recognise that mine is not the only perspective that matters and we need to understand those with differing perspectives and accommodate these.

To what extent Pietersen contributed to and might have avoided any bad feeling or misunderstanding that clearly did arise, I can’t say. How this impacted on the team’s performance, we can’t say for sure, but impact it did. But all of this should have been stamped on at the outset, and team harmony should have been restored as a priority. This did not happen and a situation arose that might have been and ought to have been prevented. Given it wasn’t, was tragic.

It got me thinking about my past and the times I have been bullied or made to feel an outsider, and is why the story is of particular interest. I can look back at times I have handled it well and times when I have handled it badly; times when I contributed to there being breakdown in relationships and times when I could not have prevented it. I recall those who were sympathetic to how I felt and those who weren’t; those who bullied or imposed and those who did the opposite; those who it was easy to work with and those who it was not easy, those who encouraged and those who didn’t.

Life is all too short and the good book teaches us the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation and the need to live in peace with our fellow man (especially if on the same team). My life as a community activist has taught me that to get things done disparate parties need to respect each other and seek out common ground, and also put aside egos that are all too easily bruised, and work together toward a clear end. I hope there will be healing in the Pietersen affair but I fear wounds that have been opened will fester for at least a while.

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