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The Kevin Pietersen debacle is a morality tale for our time

Thursday, 6 February 2014 - 9:32am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
In the place of loyalty and service, the new breed of neo-liberals bat only for themselves
  • AFP/Getty Images

The early history of Test cricket runs parallel with the fall of empires and the rise of the modern nation state. Test matches started in the 19th century, the great age of nationalism. Sir Don Bradman, the greatest cricketer who ever lived, was the symbol of Australian self-assertion against the mother country.

Sir Frank Worrell, the first permanent black captain of the West Indies, was a vital figure in the liberation movement that spread through the Caribbean in the post-war era. According to the historian Ramachundra Guha, "one can read the coming into being of the nation of Pakistan" through study of the life of the nation's first Test captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar.

All of these great men saw cricket partly as a sport, but more importantly as a way of serving their country. Cricket as a means of making money did not come into it. For many of them it was also a system of ethics.

At the heart of the game was a highly developed concept of fair play. Players were expected not to cheat - for instance to "walk" if they were out. The authority of the umpire was respected. It was axiomatic that the individual should subordinate himself and his talents to the team.

This set of propositions was linked to a powerful vision of the social order. It was assumed that men and women of exceptional gifts would devote lives of service to their community rather than further their own interests. It was recognised that extraordinary talents came by the grace of God and were not a mark of individual virtue.

The underpinnings of this vision have weakened. Religion, with its essential teaching about the unimportance of self, is no longer the force it was. In economic terms, cricket at the top level has ceased to be a form of national service. It should be viewed as another branch of the global entertainment business, dependent for revenues on giant TV conglomerates such as Subhash Chandra's Zee corporation and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Welcome to the world inhabited by Kevin Pietersen, England's best and most exciting batsmen, who was told by the selectors on Tuesday night that he will never again play for England. This painful decision has been widely reported in the context of a classic struggle between one rampant egotist and the wider interests of the team. This account is accurate, but it is worth placing it in a much broader context.

Sir Frank Worrell, A?H Kardar, Don Bradman and England's Colin Cowdrey were all manifestations of the mid-20th-century nation state, and all the social and moral obligations that went with it. Kevin Pietersen is just as surely a manifestation of the unqualified victory of neo-liberal market economics over the past two or three decades. Neo-liberals have little time for social institutions, are contemptuous of national borders, and dogmatically advocate the free movements of capital and people. They regard community, place and nation as worthless superstitions. Above all, they place the individual first.

In so far as Kevin Pietersen has any nationality, he seems to be South African. He was born and bred in South Africa, speaks with a South African accent and made his first-class debut for a South African team. He emerged as a cricketer in the most wonderful moment in South African history, when apartheid had gone and the country was building a multi-racial national team.

Pietersen wanted no part in this new world. He got out as soon as he could, claiming that the positive discrimination necessary to help black cricketers stood in his way. Lack of loyalty has been his hallmark in English cricket. He moved first to the county of Nottinghamshire, then Hampshire, now Surrey. In the England team he seems to have been the repeated cause of division and bitterness. Eighteen months ago, Pietersen shared a century partnership with James Taylor, a 22-year-old debutant, at Leeds. At the end of the session Pietersen walked off the field with the South African players, leaving Taylor on his own. It later emerged that Pietersen was sending text messages to his South African opponents. In these he is said to have mocked the England captain, Andrew Strauss. Strauss, and not Pietersen, quit in the wake of that episode - a black day for English cricket.

It now emerges that Pietersen has got on no better with Strauss's successor, Alastair Cook. During England's horror tour of Australia, Pietersen repeatedly got out to reckless shots. The worst moment came in the third Test match at Perth, when the circumstances demanded a long, patient innings. Pietersen was caught brainlessly trying to hit the off-spinner Nathan Lyon for six over mid-on, a stroke that condemned England to lose the match and the series.

Of course Pietersen has many defenders, of whom the most eloquent is Piers Morgan, a former editor of the News of the World, who has made a living out of reporting on the more or less worthless celebrity culture that has defined British public life for the past quarter century. Mr Morgan has rightly drawn attention to Pietersen's charisma at the crease, his star quality, and his many great match-winning innings.

But Pietersen's defenders go much too far by comparing him favourably with those they damn as the "yes men" in the England dressing room. There is nothing disreputable about pulling together in a common cause, or contemptible about showing public spirit, or degraded about obeying orders. It is easy to see that the disruption caused by Pietersen's deep selfishness was one cause of the Ashes catastrophe over the winter.

I would argue, therefore, that there are important lessons to be learnt from the Pietersen debacle. We can acknowledge that open borders and free movement of capital - the key conceptions of neo-liberalism - have brought great prosperity and a certain vitality to Britain over the past quarter century. There is no mainstream political party that would like to risk scaring away Goldman Sachs or Ford Motors.

But the wealth brought by international capital can be intensely damaging. It drives up values of houses so that ordinary, hard-working people can be priced out of the market. The impact of globalisation, especially through immigration, can make some British citizens feel that they are living in communities that no longer belong to them in a political system that no longer listens to them.

This is why, at the heart of British politics today, there is a debate about national identity. This has expressed itself in the recent convulsions inside the Conservative Party about the immigration Bill, the rise of Ukip and the lead-up to a likely vote on British membership of the European Union in three years' time.

What does it mean to be British? Who makes our laws? Who, indeed, do we want playing for our national sports teams? These are all very difficult and dangerous questions. Like most people, I am not confident about the answer. As someone who has followed and loved the England cricket team for nearly 50 years, one judgment is easy. The England selectors made exactly the right decision in dumping Pietersen for repeated selfishness and disloyalty this week.

There is, however, one powerful point in the man's favour. He is part of an international phenomenon that has made a great many worthless people, above all investment bankers, huge amounts of money in recent years. At least Pietersen has proved by his superb performances on the field that he is worth it.




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