SPORTS COLUMN: Without the clique’s biggest critic the team will suffer

Crispin Andrews
Crispin Andrews

If anyone ever meets Kevin Pietersen, ask him whether he listens predominantly with his left ear.

According to a 2011 London School of Economics (LSE) study into mavericks in the workplace, left ear listeners tend to favour the right hemisphere of the brain. Right brain thinkers are creative problem solvers. But mavericks also tend to be a bit neurotic. Keep them free from anxiety, the study says, and they’ll feel confident enough to unleash their full potential.

Problem is, within a team environment, mavericks rub some people up the wrong way. Particularly those who require structure and conformity to give of their best.

Pietersen is not the first maverick cricketer to be jettisoned by England because he doesn’t fit into the team’s way of doing things. On the 1990-1 tour to Australia, David Gower flew a Tiger Moth over the Carrara Oval in Queensland during a practice match, got out after irresponsibly flicking Craig McDermott to Merv Hughes at fine leg just before lunch and didn’t much care for Graham Gooch’s draconian fitness regime. Gower also scored two hundreds, but was still dropped the following summer and played only three more Tests for England.

We’re not yet privy to what went on in the England dressing room during the recent Ashes tour and why England has sacked its best player after a 5-0 drubbing. But, rightly or wrongly, cricket dressing rooms aren’t always the most hospitable of places for an individual who has their own ideas about how the game should be played. Particularly if they happen to disagree with the captain and coach, or worse still an influential clique within the team.

Cliques create certain cultures within sports teams. These cultures might seem to have the team’s best interests at heart, but they’re actually more often about an influential group maintaining a way of doing things that maximises their own role, influence or enjoyment. Whether a player buys into this culture or not, determines whether they are perceived as a maverick or a team player.

I knew a club once where an influential clique insisted that playing attritional cricket was the best way to win games.

As a result, ageing slow medium bowlers, who also happened to be at the heart of that clique, were always selected, and as the best option to wear the opposition batters down, always bowled the majority of the overs. Younger attacking bowlers were dismissed by the clique as unreliable. Anyone who expressed a preference for playing attacking cricket was marginalised. At another local club, players were judged more by the time and money they spent in the bar, after the game, than what they did on the pitch. Go home directly after the game and you were selfish, or not a good club man.

Dr Chris Jackson co-author of that LSE report says it’s important that maverick players feel valued by the team.

Also, because they are creative, but often insecure individuals, that they need to be involved in team decision making. Last week, former Australian fast bowler, Jason Gillespie, Yorkshire’s current coach, told me that maverick players can be integrated into a team structure as long as there’s open and honest communication.

Unfortunately, when mavericks come up against cliques and entrenched cultures, there’s more back biting, rumour mongering and politicking than there is open and honest communication.

All too often, when the maverick has gone, the clique remains. And while it’s there, the team will continue to suffer. But without the clique’s biggest critic, the team will suffer quietly and undemonstratively.

Visit Crispin’s website