Managing Flair


KP contemplates Ashes defeat, alone on the WACA boundary, Dec 2013

The other cricketing nations must be laughing at the mess that is English cricket right now. How a mighty side has fallen, having been ranked #1 in all formats of the game (Test, ODI and T20) in 2011, including a world T20 title to boot. Blessed with some workmanlike reliables (Cook, Trott, Prior, Strauss) mixed in with some flashy class (Pietersen, Bell, Swann, Anderson) and some brutish try hards (“we never left anything art on the field guvna!” – Broad, Bresnan) it was a golden era for English cricket, which had been the laughing stock through much of the 1990s and into the 2000s. 17 test series in a row with barely a defeat up until the end of 2013.

Then quite suddenly, it’s all gone to pot. Strauss gone, Trott gone, Cook out of form, Ashes gone (after three fairly easy series wins in a row), Swann retired, Prior dropped, Bresnan weakened after too many operations, Bell out of form, Anderson has lost his mojo. Only newboy Stokes and firebrand Broad look up to the mark.

And then the ECB fires KP. Not dropped or rested. Gone. Discarded. The highest international run scorer for England in the history of the game. Still only 33 years of age. More test hundreds than anyone except Captain Cook. More test hundreds than Boycott, Cowdrey, Gooch, Atherton, Gower, … AND IN FEWER TESTS than any of them. More than Wally Hammond, Len Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe, Ken Barrington (true, in more tests, but in shorter time). More test runs than anyone (even Cook) except Gower and Gooch (but with a far superior batting average). A far superior conversion of 50s into 100s than nearly any of those mentioned.

But KP is more than stats. Not since Botham, and maybe Gower, could an English player fill a stadium single handedly. (Sport is entertainment isn’t it?) And like Botham and Gower, his employers could not work out how to manage him. Which is their job, after all. All 3 ended their test careers too soon.

Why does corporate management these days have issues with employees of flair? People who can do the seeming impossible, and yet they do it right in front of you. Are managers that lazy they want an easy job, only wanting to manage the machines, the dependables? Where’s the joy in that? Steve Jobs was not easy to manage, and seemed to be a very difficult person all round, had various fall outs with managements and was prone to tantrums, but any manager worth their salt should be able to handle this. For what else is management than the skill of managing people? People are not machines, furniture or lines of code, they are often irrational, emotional and needy. Many things are going on in their lives (and yours) simultaneously. So what? Manage this!

Great captains of old, like Mike Brearley or Michael Vaughan, would have been able to handle KP, as Brearley did with Ian Botham (most famously in 1981) and Vaughan with Flintoff (2005). Sure KP, Freddie and ‘Both’ have big egos, but it’s that same self belief that sees them through the tough times, and let’s them try the impossible. Let them have a dash where others fear to tread.

And it’s not that KP was being especially problematical on the recent Ashes tour. By all accounts he was helping the younger players out in the nets more than ever, staying long after others had gone to help someone with their technique and pass on his experience. On the very day he was sacked, he was holding a coaching clinic with his Surrey teammates. Although he did not soar to his usual heights downunder, he was the leading scorer on the tour, and you should give some credit to the Aussie bowlers who were sensational. They are currently destroying the South African test team (who are ranked #1 at the moment… but for how much longer?) so perhaps it would be better to take this on the chin and say “Fair call – Aussies were far better, well played.” And learn from what they did … as the Aussies did from their previous 3 defeats.

During the recent Ashes series, I watched him at the WACA. In the nets, around the ground and on the field. With a bat in his hand, he was trying what he knew best. He was the one trying to bust out, and yet had the impossible task of trying to take the battle to the Aussies while being berated should he hole out at mid off. He played some of his slowest and most measured innings’ for England in this series, straining at the leash, always looking for an answer to Australia’s superb line and length. Watching him and Cook taking on Johnson at full steam on a blisteringly hot Saturday afternoon last December, they ducked and dived and survived the onslaught for over after over, only for Cook to get out meekly to the spinner Lyon when the pressure had been relieved. A few minutes later KP was out to a mishit pull off Siddle to (that man again) Johnson at mid on. Having been 2-136 chasing Australia’s 385, the innings subsided to 251 and it was all over red rover. Ashes gone. Later in the field, I saw KP consigned to the boundary, where for hour after hour he was barely interacting with his team mates. What was the point of that? The guy’s played 100 tests, he should be drawn into the team, not pushed away from it.

Captaining a team, moving the field around, analysing the opposing batsmen, sensing the moment, changing the bowling, saying a word here and a word there… is what captaincy is all about. In no other sport is captaincy so crucial. It’s instant leadership and management of people. What you try either works right there or it does not. Not everyone is up to this task. I don’t think Cook is.

What would I have done? I would have made Cook test captain, and KP vice captain. (Someone else, maybe Morgan or KP, could be one day captain, and run two very different teams – a test squad and a one day squad, with very few – if any – players in both.)  Mixed solid with flair. Get them to work together. Ying and yang. Creative differences are good. I would have rebuilt the side with the dependables, some new boys and the flairs. To see how it’s done, just look at how brilliantly John Inverarity has rebuilt Australia with a perfect blend of the old/dependable (Rogers, Haddin, Siddle, Harris, Lyon), flair (Johnson, Warner, Clarke) and the new boys (Smith, and now Doolan, Marsh). And he’s done it from the depths of the crushing Lord’s defeat (which was only 7 months ago). I wrote then ‘Do not overreact‘ Australia! Same is now true for England.

Management – blending flair with reliability. Is it really that hard?

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