Friday, January 10, 2014

Kevin Pietersen: the Sherlock of English cricket

Simon Barnes has an excellent article in The Times today, one with resonance for anyone who has ever worked with unreasonable but highly-effective people.
"It’s a shame that Sherlock, the television show, changed from a brilliant and thrilling adventure based on the utterly exceptional qualities of its main character into a self-indulgent and self-referential soap-opera-cum-comedy based on one rather crude characterisation."
Yes, I noticed that too.
"It is an equal shame that precisely the same thing has happened with the England cricket team. The Kevin Pietersen story once again dominates the plot-lines of English cricket. Like Sherlock, it is a drama centred on a uniquely talented individual with questionable social skills.

"In the first half of the most recent episode, someone describes Sherlock to his face as a psychopath. He contradicts, not without smugness: “No. High-functioning sociopath.”

"Well, let’s not stick labels on people. Leave that to those qualified. An “anti-social personality disorder” often includes such traits as small regard for the feelings and welfare of others, inability to learn from experience, no sense of responsibility, lack of moral sense, no change after punishment, lack of guilt, pathological egocentricity and inability to love.

"Pietersen’s perpetually sticky relationships with his cricketing colleagues unquestionably go personality-deep. With my level of expertise I think we can confidently describe him as a high-functioning awkward bugger. And it has been widely reported that his relationship with Andy Flower, the England team director, has broken down disastrously.

"It has even been suggested that Flower will not carry on if Pietersen remains on board. Another version states that Pietersen can stay on board so long as he devotes himself to scoring runs in county cricket at the beginning of the new season, instead of playing in the IPL. Kev can stay, but it’ll cost him getting on for a million quid.

"Flower was a great coach for England until the trip to Australia this winter spoilt his record. His greatest achievements? Defeat of Australia in Australia in 2010-11 and defeat of India in India from one-down in 2012. How did these things come about?

"In Adelaide in 2010, Pietersen changed the series with an innings of murderous certainty in which he scored 227. In Mumbai two years later, England were batting on a turning pitch tailored for India’s needs; Pietersen scored 186, another classic momentum-shifter.

"Flower, like all coaches, is essentially Watson. Coaches, even if they preen like José Mourinho, are at base facilitators, enablers and sounding boards. They don’t solve the case: they are just helping out as best they can.

"Cases are actually solved by the Sherlocks: the high-functioning ones. It was Pietersen, not Flower, who solved The Case of the Prematurely Celebrating Australians and The Case of the Indians Hoist With Their Own Petard.

"We would all sooner deal with Watson, we’d sooner have a drink or a cup of tea with Watson and we save most of our sympathies for Watson, who is always in a perfectly intolerable situation. But if we want to solve the case, we need Sherlock.

The brutally-effective people I knew in business were more Steve Jobs than Sherlock. People who would call you at any hour of the day or night and calmly task you with impossible deadlines; give you jobs and then let slip that they had also asked some other people who had already delivered - so your efforts had been simply wasted (not that they cared or anything, or had bothered to mention this); people who, as peers, simply ignored your existence, wouldn't return calls or attend meetings. People who routinely shouted at people.

It was tough working for or with these people: the only protection was to be an acolyte, tolerated in some subservient role at their court - not being a posse person, I was never very keen nor good at that. The safest place to be was one or two management levels above them, where their destructive effectiveness could be leveraged in fulfillment of one's own higher-level goals. Every successful executive needs an enforcer or troubleshooter.

The choice is not solely between Sherlock or Watson. There are other kinds of talents which work in business and in the world - skills less abrasive which still add value. But we all have our Watson moments as we wonder how much punishment our pleasant, collegial organisation can or should take before we spit this person out. It's actually a genuine dilemma.

Further Reading

Bertrand Russell.
"Natural Killers" in the US Army by Major David S. Pierson.