Wednesday 15 August 2012

KP and the moneyball effect

It is difficult to see who gains from Kevin Pietersen's ongoing expulsion from England colours, but it is clear who has won: management. By slapping down the maverick, the ECB have shown exactly where power lies in English cricket.

Call it the Moneyball effect but never – in what's actually a rather brief history – have cricket's managers been held in higher regard. This is much less an era of player power than it is one of managerial power.

The Moneyball story – of a coach who used expert skills to reconceptualise his sport and build an (almost) champion team from scant resources - is now familiar. The broad idea was that by focusing more on processes and less on outcomes – and finding the stats to help that end – coaches could devise new strategies that make all the difference. The old-wives intuition of gnarled ex-pros was outdated and for real insight into the workings of a sport a new breed of rational, coaching-course-trained technocrat was necessary.

Interestingly, the visible effects of the Moneyball generation have so far been felt much more keenly off the field than on it. There have been no especially revelatory tactics or unexpected selections. Bowling dry in a free-scoring era helped England climb the rankings but it is was hardly revolutionary. Similarly the Taylorist attention to detail saw England's fitness and fielding improve, but did not transform the game.

Instead, as the Pietersen episode shows, it's the power granted to managers that has been the real consequence. Resources are made available for all manner of different specialists, and coaches can make demands on their national boards that were never possible even 15 years ago. Flower, as coach, is given far greater scope to shape the team than any senior player has. That may well be fair, and Flower's on and off-field history shows he is a deeply impressive man, but perhaps management in general should be treated with more caution.

Is it too simplistic to ask which of Pietersen or Flower has contributed to more England victories? Perhaps, but looking beyond cricket we see how thoroughly ingrained the cult of management is. The extraordinary reaction to Steve Jobs's death last year was emblematic of it. Rather than it being the team of researchers, designers, App developers, or indeed the fingers of suicidal Foxx-con workers that were credited for creating Apple's products it was the 'genius' of Jobs that had to be celebrated.

The belief that in the heads of coaches lies insights that nobody else can muster makes their influence enormous. Players have been emasculated to the point where they are reliant on experts for everything.

The wider effect of the subordination of players to management is making them more equal with each other. To 'buy into the approach', as managers love putting it, is to agree to relegate your own desire to that of the manager's. Why? So that everyone 'pulls in the same direction'. By extension when somebody, as Pietersen did, undermines the management structures he undermines the principle of unity-from-above.

The balance of power between different fractions of a collective – be it a cricket team or a company - is always unstable. Different environments at different moments will favour different groups but, judging by Pietersen's situation, the current consensus leaves management untouchable.

1 comment:

SL said...

Hi Sahil

nice reviews on cricinfo.
I wonder if you woudl like to review my new ebook on your blog.
I can gift it to you, or send you a synopsis.


Stuart Larner