Thursday, September 2, 2010

Kevin Pietersen simply tells us what we already know

The recent furore about Kevin Pietersen tweeting his disgust at being dropped for the oncoming One-day series says nothing more about Pietersen than what we already knew. What it does raise, however, is the burgeoning issue of appropriate use of social networking sites by cricketers, Twitter foremost among them.

The ECB has recently made moves to ban players from using the microblogging site, a move for control by a board unable to micromanage its playing staff as in days past. At the front of their minds must be the abusive tweet sent to a fan by paceman Tim Bresnan as well as Pietersen's outraged update at being “rested”. Gone are the days of a simple five-minute radio interview at the end of a day's play, now replaced by 24/7 access to the dressing room, long the most private area of any team's domain. To that extent, several leagues have legislated to stop players tweeting during matches or about in-game incidents.

This northern summer, KP's form has been patchy at best and he has stagnated as a batsman since the Moores crisis of early 2009. His batting, once powerful and expressive enough to command a place in any world cricket side, has reached the point where he's now convinced – like Matthew Hayden in his career twilight – that domination of a bowling attack comes down only to an aggressive state of mind rather than the combination of footwork, attitude and hard graft.

Of course Pietersen's antics shouldn't come as a surprise. He has ample experience at dealing with traditional media sources and must have known his Twitterrage would be reported yet still posted the message. This adds proof to the theory that most professional athletes react differently to disappointment than the rest of us. As an exceedingly small group, they are feted and praised beyond all recognition simply for their hand-eye co-ordination and as a result a healthy world-view is hard to maintain. These abilities are so desired that the media and fans have created this elite status where a blind eye can be turned consciously to an athlete's self-obsession, all because it's in everyone's best interest to see that athlete perform at their best.

If KP's Twitterburst came from a normal person it would be seen as immature. But we can't judge him in those terms because he's not a normal person. At least he doesn't consider himself normal because he's been told that's he's special by everyone since age twelve. One only has to see his posture at the crease to gain insight into how Pietersen views himself. Like anyone who is told something repetitively, Kevin has come to believe that he is special and that special people get what they want, whether that be a spot in the team, superior treatment in restaurants or a chance to voice their opinion, no matter how alternative, misguided or clinically insane.

Making (and recovering from) mistakes combined with good old-fashioned repetition forms the bedrock of learning. When it comes to cricket, Pietersen's talent has helped him make fewer mistakes than the norm. With a lack of negative reinforcement and only repetition – which in itself breeds obsession – from which to learn, could this be a key source of his skewed perspective? With a minimum of negative reinforcement, how could any of us have a well-adjusted world view?

How any player chooses to express himself is very much up to the individual. The proliferation of athletes regurgitating only cliche and optimism means it's safe to expect only platitudes from the age-old combination of player and microphone. Adding fuel to the fire is very rare now – especially since the retirement of noted agitators McGrath and Warne – but whenever a player steps out of line via Twitter he should as accountable for his words as he would be in any other public forum. Rather than a flat-ban, applying the simple “Would you say that to a microphone”? technique may be the best option. Social networking tools should be treated exactly the same as any other media outlet with anything published on these sites regarded as a public statement – vent, post, or blog at the player's own risk like the rest of us – and if an employer can catch a truant employee via a facebook update then the same rules must apply to athletes.

The ECB shouldn't, and probably legally can't, stop their cricketers from using these sites. Of pro athletes, the number of damaging tweets as a percentage of overall tweet numbers must be microscopic and rarely are any tweets revelatory. I mean, how often do you expect to hear a startling disclosure about anything in 140 characters or less? And combined with the unflappable boredom that makes up the current crop of world cricketers this issue suddenly becomes irrelevant. The domain of the pro athlete is no longer only the arena and has stretched into cyberspace: Twitter is an egotist's (and their agent's) wet dream because it allows everyone in the world free and unfettered access to “the brand”, in this case the most damaging batsman in World Cricket today.

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