Team versus star

Kevin Pietersen... a great batsman, but failed as a captain.-AP

The best player of a side is not necessarily its best captain, nor is its best captain its best player.

The great mystery which lies at the heart of the dichotomy of cricket asks the question: “Is cricket a showcase for the individual star player’s pyrotechnics, or is it a team sport in which the side which pulls together wins, by virtue of its combined efforts?” And, following on this line of thought, should the outstanding batsman or bowler play selfishly, placing self interest before that of his side? It is, after all, not an unreasonable stand to take, since the talented and skilled exponent of a sport can justifiably argue that if he takes wickets, scores runs, completes a few brilliant run outs, or takes several outstanding catches, his fortunes will be reflected vicariously in those of his team. If, on the other hand, an XI plays with an even-handedness which sees each member of the team score a few runs, take the odd “snatch”, knock over a “pole’ or two and catch a few batsmen out of their ground, the absence of any outstanding achievement may deny the side the victory it deserves. How often does a batting side lay the foundations of a substantial innings and then falter when it can virtually “taste” victory, because there is no one to translate a good minor innings into a match-winning knock?

I hesitate to raise the issue of “team versus star” since in a cricket world monopolised by the glitz of promoters, sensational newspaper headlines and the heroes of the silver television screen, nothing is easier than to glamorise and exaggerate the images of sportspersons well beyond their natural proportions and human abilities. On the other hand, however, the selfless subjugation of the individual player to the collective interests of the team has long been backed by the English public school teaching idealistically expressed in Newbolt’s poem “Vitae Lampada” and at the conclusion of many seasons in a myriad of sports pavilions, glasses are raised and toasts are given to “the team” rather than to an individual player. Occasionally “boil overs” disturb the serene altruism of cricket. Quite recently the problem was raised at international level when the spotlight of fame singled out England’s megastar and then skipper, Kevin Pietersen, from the ruck of players, shaped by England coach Peter Moores over a 16-month period in England, India and the West Indies. Pietersen was a popularly promotable product; blonde, built on handsome Grecian lines, a successful and cavalier batsman and the captain of the Test side, he was that rare commodity: a century maker and England’s best performed batsman against Australia, India and the West Indies. Traditionally, a sport’s best achiever is recognised by his promotion to a position of responsibility within the team — to the position of senior professional or captain — sometimes just to the responsibilities of the number three bat or the frontline strike bowler. Accordingly Pietersen’s elevation to the role of England’s skipper was an odds-on bet almost from the first moment that he stepped on to the field.

What Pietersen’s abrupt advancement failed to recognise was that the qualities which make a sportsman the most accomplished exponent of a skill, do not necessarily equip him to be a leader of men; they do not endow him with an in-depth knowledge of tactics; nor do they communicate the ability to interpret moves such as power plays. Playing skills do not carry with them the ability to understand the overall evolution of a match. They do not endow the speaker with a clarity of expression, nor the empathy which sometimes exists between a speaker and the listener. Playing skills do not carry with them the facility to demonstrate a skill, diagnose and cure technical errors in a fellow player; nor can they embody the inclination to encourage.

They cannot isolate and express short term and long term goals. They cannot act as the ambassador of one cricketing body in the councils of an overseas committee as were Marylebone sides so instructed to act before each tour abroad in the post-War years. The corollary of this argument is that the best player of a side is not necessarily its best captain, nor is its best captain its best player.

Certainly mastery of good skills gives a player a head start in the race for the leadership of a team. It earns him the respect of his fellow players, who follow him since they know that their skipper rarely asks them to do what he cannot do himself. At the age of 40, Freddie Brown, the former Surrey and England all-rounder, returned to lead the MCC touring team to Australia in 1950/51.When injury depleted the bowling strength of the touring side, he won the admiration of the Australian spectators with a tireless exhibition of medium-pace and leg-spin bowling — and several explosive demonstrations of his hitting power with the bat. During the following English season I had several opportunities whilst playing for Northamptonshire to observe at first hand the endurance of this remarkable Peter Pan of cricket. I could only but endorse the opinion of the Sydney costermongers who advertised their wares from their market stalls by spruiking that their cabbages had hearts as big as Freddie Brown!

But leadership encompasses the totality of sport. It requires someone who understands the inner mentality of the game being played. Mike Brearley, the Cambridge graduate and England skipper of the Botham era, did not earn the accolade of leader in recognition of on-field exploits. His modest tally of 1442 Test runs occupied 39 Tests — scarcely an eye catching performance. But as the Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg remarked, “Mike Brearley has a degree in people.” Importantly he could get the best out of the match-winner of his era, Ian Botham.