The Exception That Proves The Rule, or Why Cricket Is A Team Sport About Individuals

Posted on February 4, 2014

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Well, it would appear that the storied career of Kevin Pietersen has reached its end. After yamming and yumming, the England Cricket Board has decided against selected him for the upcoming World Twenty20 in Bangladesh and any series beyond that. A career that spanned 104 test matches, more centuries than anybody else for England bar Alastair Cook, more controversy than any other cricketer of his generation and the types of innings that inspired a whole world to play the game, seems to be over. Even up to the last he stood above his peers, as England’s top run-scorer in the debacle that was the recent Ashes series. Even so, it seems that after years of stability the England cricket team have finally succumbed to that worst of all modern sporting conditions, the desire to wipe the board clean after a particularly harrowing defeat. In the race to rebuild the side, Pietersen, or to be more exact Pietersen’s personality, has become the scapegoat and major casualty.

Make no mistake about it though, Kevin Pietersen remains the best batsman available to the England cricket team. No one truly comes close to him. The greatest players have all been able to take the game away from the opposition, have all provided those innings that only they could play. The West Indies side of the 2000s was pretty bad, but take away Brian Lara and I’d argue they wouldn’t be playing test cricket today. Think of all the times Australia ran away from the opposition because of Ricky Ponting. How many times were Pakistan seven down and seemingly dead, only for Inzamam-ul Haq to conjure up something miraculous with the tail? Pietersen remains the only player available to England capable of such feats. Ian Bell is the closest to him, but he is increasingly unlikely to play such innings. He’ll play the most beautiful of knocks, but instil a fear in the opposition that leads to silly fields in simple situations? Only Pietersen.

When he burst onto the international scene in Zimbabwe and South Africa in the winter of 2004, it’s no exaggeration to say he was a revelation. He was exactly what England had been lacking for the previous 15 years. He was brash, he was cocky, he was going to score runs whether you liked it or not. When he walked out to bat, all eyes were going to be on him. The decade previous had seen many talented players stride out for England, but none had the swagger and confidence of KP. The self doubt and tendency to crumble that had terrorised England for pretty much the entire time I had watched the sport was gone. Arguably it was his 158 in the final test that won the 2005 Ashes for England. It was a terrifyingly brash innings. Much like Peter the Great dragged Russia out of its shackles in the 1700s, Kevin Pietersen did the same for the England cricket team in the 2000s.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. It was his spat with Peter Moores in 2008 and with Andrew Strauss in 2012 that ultimately led to the end for both. Ever since that Moores issue, not a tour has gone-by without his place in the dressing room being of constant consternation for the bloodthirsty British sports media and never more so than this recent Australia tour. He’s been described as a cancer in the dressing room, despite many a player coming out and denying it. They obviously have to say that though, and it must be pretty dire for him to be erased from the future so intently. But the point still stands, he is their best player. Do you sacrifice your strongest piece in order to create a stronger team?

Take Maradona out of the Napoli side in the late 80s and you’d undoubtedly have different results. Before he arrived, they had only had two runners-up finishes in their 60 year history. Heck, the season prior to his arrival they finished just a point above relegation. Within a year he had catapulted them to 3rd, followed by two titles in four seasons. He left in 1992. Where did Napoli finish in 1992/93? 11th. The Lara example has already been made, but is worth repeating. Without him, there is a good chance that the West Indies would be even deeper into the mire than they are today. These are extreme examples of course, and without Pietersen England still have plenty of quality. But more so than a lot of sports, Cricket is a team sport that relies on individual brilliance. Only one man can bowl at one batsman. One man takes a catch. It’s a team sport, sure, but it’s a team sport only in that 11 players take to the field. Once there, the vast majority of the action is down to the individual.

England reached the top of the rankings based on two things; Having the best team ethic and Kevin Pietersen. They can rebuild the first, but they are unlikely to find another of the latter any time soon. The flip-side is that some long-term planning might be just what is needed. The jury will remain out, and will do so for some time yet.

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