The dilemmas of talent management. The case of Kevin Pietersen

May 13, 2015

KPIn the space of a week, Kevin Pietersen, cricket’s most talented and controversial figure, scored a record number of runs and learned that he would not be selected for the England test team

Great individual talent sometimes requires great talent management. Kevin Pietersen’s international cricket career is a prime example.

The English cricket establishment has since his arrival on the scene struggled with the challenge of harnessing the exceptional talent of Kevin Pietersen and dealing with assorted off-field controversies.

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Strauss resigns as England Captain as pundits duck the tough questions

August 29, 2012

England cricket captain Andrew Strauss resigns after a series defeat and yet more off-field controversies. For several weeks, multiple former captains now turned into pundits adverse comments. They also rarely mentioned the decisions of the selectors who had first appointed Andrew Flintoff and then Kevin Pietersen in advance of Andrew Strauss

There are too many armchair pundits of cricket and I don’t want to add myself to the list. I feel a bit more comfortable in examining what has been said and written by those who have themselves played for and captained the England cricket team.

An unlucky General?

Over his three years of captaincy Strass led his team to the top of the international rankings, including wins over the previously near-invincible Australians. He has also been beset with off-the-field controversies which were outside his control. They included match fixing, accusations of ball-tampering, and much bad temper between England and Pakistan cricket authorities in particular. Napoleon might have said he had been an unlucky General.

Pressure mounts

As pressure mounted on out-of-form Strauss, the commentators began to dwell on his batting failures. Then, recently [Aug 2012] Pietersen (a South African by birth) was forced out of the England team after his disrespectful texts about Strauss to members of the South African team, the current opponents who were well on the way to replacing England as the highest ranked team.

Don’t scare the horses

The Pietersen affair produced a switch of tone from the commentators who seemed to avoid the slightest of adverse comments on Andrew Strauss’s capabilities. No one wanted to spook the selectors by remarking on the weaknesses of his captaincy. In real-time, the commentators had often said or implied his on-field decision-making was cautious and unimaginative. Now they were lining up to say he was one of the best England captains of recent times.

Why? The comments suggest that he was articulate and calm while dealing with the press (better than Flintoff or Pietersen). He had the confidence and loyalty of the players. (Except for the rogue horse Pietersen). He had also forged good relationship with coaches and administrators. Not bad, but are they necessary and sufficient criteria for success as a captain?

How to assess a captain

This evidence supports the view that Strauss was a quiet and rather uncharismatic individual, perhaps fitting the profile of a level five leader who is ‘modest but of fierce resolve’.

Such leaders are often only noticed in hindsight, and tend to be overlooked in selection processes which favour the gifted, the extraverted, and the charismatic. In other words, people like Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen.

Learning from practice

It seems likely that the selectors have learned from the earlier appointments. The new captain Alistair Cook is closer to Strauss in temperament than to the cavaliers of yore mentioned above, and was being groomed for the job.

Andrew Strauss under the microscope for his leadership style

January 3, 2011

England cricket has achieved its best result in two decades in retaining the Ashes in Australia. Andrew Strauss and his leadership style deserve a close examination

“And so it came to pass that Strauss led England to a great victory. And the leader received many accolades. Stage one of the drama is complete as the hero-leader enjoys his triumph [January 7th 2011].”

England’s success in retaining the Ashes has brought near-hysterical acclaim in the English media. The unstinting praise is the more satisfying as a large proportion of former England captains still around are commentating for the media. Strauss is given particular credit for his man-management skills. His form as an opening bat in this series provided a bonus, demonstrate someone who leads by example.

And yet…

And yet, there have been muted concerns about the tactical side of his captaincy. From time to time the commentators have been baffled about decisions he makes in the field. The concerns have been expressed in the summaries by various former England captains. I have been following Sky feeds and BBC radio 4 and 5. Their comments seem more in puzzlement than criticism. It reminds me the reaction of football commentators when baffled by a decision by Sir Alex Ferguson: “Doesn’t make sense to me, but who am I to say he’s got it wrong?”

As an England captain myself (in my dreams)

I write as a former England captain myself. In my dreams, that is, and as a member of the ranks of millions of such fantasists. I’m reading something in those statements of the far smaller regiment of real England captains. Sir Ian Botham is ‘puzzled’ when Strauss fails to use his best bowlers quickly enough to break up a promising stand by the Australians (usually Hussey and Haddon). Several former England captains in concert in the recent [December 2010] Melbourne test noticed the gaps that could have been plugged to stop the batsmen taking easy singles. (Didn’t anyone on the field feel able to speak up? That’s part of the story isn’t it?)

When things go wrong

Which leads me to conclude this. When things go wrong. As will happen. The mask of invulnerability will be whipped away from the revered image presented of the current England captain. If he is lucky he will still be seen as a successful captain, but with flaws. This might be said of just about every other previous occupancy of the post. Even the super-captain Mike Brearley came under fire as his batting average plummeted.

The next test

The next test for Strauss, and for several million former captains of England, starts tonight (11.30 GMT, Jan 2nd, 20110). Will losing the toss make a difference?

And the next stage in the drama unfolded

And so it came to pass that Strauss led England to a great victory. And the leader received many accolades. Stage one of the drama is complete as the hero-leader enjoys his triumph [January 7th 2011]. But the journey is not over. The ancients talked of hubris. The Australians talk of the tall-poppy syndrome.

On Winning the Toss: A Surprising Explanation of an Old Cricketing Conundrum

January 5, 2010

When Andrew Strauss, captain of England, recently won the toss in the third of a four match series against South Africa, he made a decision which could well influence the outcome of the series. I decided to look more deeply into the factors which a captain has to take into account in deciding whether to bat first. I came up with a surprising conclusion.

‘Every schoolboy knows’ that to win the toss at Cricket confers an advantage. On benign days the opposition will then probably have the worse of a deteriorating wicket later in the game. The Captain sould elect to bat first. But what if conditions are tricky – poorish light, cool, and with high humidity that helps the cricket ball swing mysteriously in flight? The dilemma is plain. Should the captain elect to bowl first. Strauss decided to bowl.

His decision was applauded at the time by the coterie of former captains available to comment on such occasions. Then, a determined innings by the team’s most determined batsman, Jacques Kallis, swung things back in favour of South Africa.

“If you are so clever what would you have done?”

I muttered that Strauss was a good batsman but not a deep-thinking strategist. “If you are so clever what would you have done? The Captain can’t theorise, he’s got to make a decision.” Susan’s question (as so often) forced me out of mutter-mode into thinking-mode. I assumed it would not take long to sort out this little problem. I was wrong. My initial thoughts were that the probabilities could be converted into a version of game theory. This would give some indication of when it might be better to bat first after winning the toss.

Several lengthy periods of thought later, I knew beyond reasonable doubt the extent of my ignorance. That is to say, I did not know how to reach the ‘bat or field’ decision. But the implication went further. I was also pretty sure than no-one else knew the answer either. The decision into the class of indeterminate ones for reason of complexity of factors and lack of adequate information.

The shocking implication and a Leadership Dilemma

The shocking implication of this finding is that a captain who knows the right thing to do on winning the toss, is suffering from a common leadership delusion. It is not a case of ‘knowing more than can be told’, but more a case of believing more than can be known’. The dilemma arises if a Captain feels he loses credibility if he appears to be less than certain of what he is doing. The conclusion applies to more diffident captains like Andrew Strauss, who often appears to recognise the inponderables of leadership. It also applies to the massed ranks of the pundits, be they fearless former England Captains or back-page scribblers.

For the moment take it from me, the uncertainties are of the kind which led Herbert Simon to coin the term ‘satisficing’ for a process through which a decision-maker simplifies the complexities in a situation in order to reach a decision. It may well be the case that someone has done a little analysis of the statistics of winning the toss and electing to field. If so, the results are a carefully guarded secret.

So what should a Captain do on winning the toss?

But Susan’s follow-up remark also hit home. The Captain has to do something in double-quick time. Strauss had had a brief period to anticipate conditions before the toss, and then a few moments to confirm a decision on winning it. Incidentally, he then had less than a minute to justify a decision that can not be arrived at completely by a rational analysis.

Based on this line of reasoning, my considered answer to Susan’s question is as follows: Now that I know my decision is not much better than tossing a coin I would stick with statistics more often than I might otherwise have done. And that means batting first is an advantage. If conditions appeared to favour the bowlers first, I’d think more carefully about it.

I would probably consult, but if I did so it would be with the knowledge that bowlers and batsmen alike would prefer their team to bowl first in tricky conditions, if only for self-interested reasons.

All this would not tell me whether I should bowl, but if I decided to do so, at least the decision to field would then be based on consultation, rather than my trying to maintain face as the captain knows best, and has made the decision on grounds of superior judgement.