Sunday, February 9, 2014

Kevin Pietersen and the Logic of Capitalism

Kevin Pietersen is, evidently, not an easy man to get along with. It is no great insight to say that those personal qualities that make him so instantly dislikeable – his brashness, his arrogance, his egotism – are the very things that defined his batting, and made him one of the most exciting talents to grace test cricket over the past decade. The guy is box office; it really is that simple. His attacking lustre, his innovation and unpredictability drew the crowds and left them excitedly perched on the edge of their seats. Yet Pietersen the man seemed irreconcilably drawn to controversy, as though he were never more than 22 yards from the next back page headline.

For a leftie like me the memory of Pietersen’s arrival in England still rankles. His decision to skip out of South Africa, seemingly upset that the country had chosen to advance black players through a quota system, left a bad taste in the mouth. He was, as one journo wag put it, D’Oliviera in reverse. Moreover his media image appeared to encompass all that is wrong with the world of elite sport today. He collected sponsorship deals like the rest of us collect ticket stubs. There really is no other way to put this: it just wasn’t cricket. Pietersen embodied the rampant commercialism that had morphed spectators into consumers, he epitomised the gun-for-hire mercenary trope that sees national identities blurred by globalisation, and, perhaps above all else, he struck you as a man for whom individual success was more important that the success of the collective. He was the quintessential cricketer of the neo-liberal age.

Pietersen may be the very model of the modern middle-order-bat, but there has always been something definitely, defiantly old-school about him. His inclination towards the outspoken has continuously left him at odds with counties, England management and teammates and has been compounded by a demeanour that all too often verges on the sullen. One suspects that Pietersen, like many sporting greats, combines an overbearing self-confidence with a number of deep lying insecurities; a combustible mix that inescapably tends towards inter-personal conflict. While they may have been markedly different in their shot selection, Pietersen and Geoff Boycott have more in common than you might first have thought.

It is impossible to know exactly why Pietersen has been cut adrift at this time, especially as the English Cricket Board have to all intents and purposes issued a bespoke D-notice on the subject. Pietersen’s position as the catalyst for unease in the England set-up has long been grist for the rumour mill, and former captain Andrew Strauss has recently described the “total absence of trust” between KP and his international colleagues. Whether a recent event, as yet hidden from the public gaze, has triggered his departure or whether he is the victim of an accumulation of previous misdemeanours is uncertain. What is certain is that the dénouement to the saga was as inevitable as Pietersen chipping the ball to a short mid-wicket off the bowling of a part-time left arm spinner.

Pietersen’s talents may be unique, but his predicament is not. The maverick has always divided opinion between those who relish the unexpected in the often regimented world of sport and those who refuse to indulge the whims of the prima donna and the loose cannon. One way to approach the question is to say that Pietersen undermined the team ethos; an argument that of course contains a degree of truth and which one might expect to appeal to the socialist sports fan. Yet sport and work under capitalism, as Bero Rigauer has remarked, are “structurally analogous”. All cricketers – even Pietersen – are workers, albeit if some are distinctly more privileged than you or I. As any trade unionist will explain, being singled out as somebody who is “not a team player” is management-speak for someone who refuses to kowtow to authority.  

By virtue of his supreme talent Pietersen was granted more leeway than the average player, and was certainly indulged to a greater extent than your average office worker. He was labelled “temperamental” and a “unique individual” whereas the rest of us would receive written warnings from our employers and urged to attend anger management classes (one suspects that Pietersen can anger management well enough without the need to take a course). For all the time that the England cricket team were winning the situation was handled by the selectors and coaches, it seems that only now has Pietersen’s position become untenable. England’s Ashes failure was as calamitous a performance as I can remember, and my memory goes back to a time when Phil DeFreitas was considered the country’s premier strike bowler. Coach Andy Flower may have fallen on his sword but it was not enough to placate the powers that be.

Giles Clarke (Rugby; Oxford), as chairman of selectors, has cast Pietersen in the role of scapegoat for the humiliation Down Under and also seized the opportunity to remove a long term disruptive influence. It was only a matter of time before management reasserted their authority in such fashion. Cricket’s highly stratified command structures have been reinforced and the team have purged the enemy within in the name of stability and recovery. In sport, as in society, crisis is met with inscrutable logic while blame is apportioned as far from the corridors of power as possible. And with that Pietersen’s England career is over. It is not without irony that he should have fallen victim to the very processes that brought him such wealth and acclaim.