Kevin Pietersen has always been an iconoclast. A man whose switch-hit forced the redrafting of cricket’s laws, he has now released an autobiography that smashes the ultimate sporting taboo: what goes on tour, stays on tour.
Pietersen’s account of fear and loathing within the England cricket camp invites us to reconsider our view of the professional dressing room – a sacred space that most amateur enthusiasts would give their left eye to inhabit.
“People may think [dressing rooms] are places of milk and honey and soothing music but they are not,” he writes. “The stories would make your hair stand on end. I have rugby friends and football friends and the stories are all the same.”
Can life behind the velvet rope really be so horrible? Most retired athletes miss the camaraderie of their team-mates – and the hours they spent in that private bubble – at least as much as the competition itself.
This week, several sportsmen have joined the debate with tales of their own. Mike Atherton, “a mild-mannered man” in his own words, admitted raising his fists at team-mates and attacking furniture with his bat.
Robbie Savage described a dressing-room “game” where “you sat on a chair with your head covered by a wet towel while team-mates wrapped a football in another towel and whacked you over the head”. He added, “I’ve seen kids physically hide – in the toilets, the boot room, kitchen, wherever – to escape being hammered by their peers.”
A life in team sport is more extreme, more vivid and more fraught with tension than anything you will find outside the military. This is a tribal environment, as well as a hyper-male one in which competitiveness and athleticism are prerequisites. It comes with its own village elders (senior pros) and initiation rituals, as well as the ever-present banter and leg-pulling which, at its best, functions as a sort of social glue.
“When I was studying anthropology at university, we worked on case studies of African tribes that had an ‘insult complex’,” says Britain’s leading squash coach, Malcolm Willstrop. “You only insulted people you liked, and people you knew could take it. Which isn’t so far from the way things work at Pontefract Squash Club. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but banter is part of the joy of life, isn’t it? If you’re not laughing and ribbing each other, where’s the fun?”
Willstrop stresses he’s talking about grown-ups here; children should be treated more gently. Even so, one man’s banter can easily spill over into another man’s bullying. And if you are not careful, most of the mickey-taking will be directed at the vulnerable.
“Football dressing rooms can be like an army barracks – young men with a lot of testosterone,” says Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, who have introduced 24-hour bullying helplines. “It’s a delicate subject to deal with because, when youngsters are hoping to make the grade, they don’t want to be seen to be complaining.”
There’s something primal about a sports team, something that recalls the law of the jungle. When those 11 or 15 players go out on the field, they’re not so different to the hunter-gatherers bringing down a mammoth. No wonder dressing rooms can be uncivilised places at times, nor that new recruits are routinely tested out for strength of character for fear they might prove to be a weak link.
Savage’s account speaks of “your initiation ritual as a Manchester United apprentice [which] involved being led into a darkened room where you had to chat up a mop and then get sexy with a treatment table while the other lads giggled in the background”. A daft game, perhaps, but also a challenge to be passed.
If each sport has its own peculiar ecosystem, then rugby dressing rooms are the most cohesive.
“You’re not just relying on your team-mates for the result, but for safety,” says former international hooker Brian Moore.
As an individual sport played in a team environment, cricket is at the other end of the scale. Not only do the endless tours allow petty jealousies to fester, but selfishness is hard to avoid when the scorecard evaluates every player so precisely. In public, a cricketer will always say he would rather win the match than score a hundred. But what if he makes a duck, causing his batting average to slump and the selectors to lose faith in him?
“When I go through all the dressing-room flare-ups I can remember,” says one grizzled former pro, “it was always the same thing. Player A has had a bad match. Player B has had a good one, but doesn’t manage to put on a sympathetic act – and thus dents the illusion of team spirit. Some people are just better at dissembling than others. Pietersen causes trouble because he is such a bad actor.”
The dynamics are different again in modern Premier League football. These polyglot teams stand in constant danger of fragmentation.
“It’s easy to get the French lads and the Spanish boys and then the rest all in their little groups,” says former Arsenal striker Alan Smith. “But successful clubs find a way around that. At Manchester City, Vincent Kompany makes an effort to get everyone involved off the pitch, and invites the wives and girlfriends, too, to give it a family atmosphere.”
There’s another practical issue involving football. As well as hefty pay packets, they also have too much time on their hands.
“Footballers are bored a lot,” says Jon Finn, a psychologist who has worked across a variety of sports. “There’s so much sitting around, unfocused time. Your brain finds that stressful because it wants instant gratification. So you find players getting involved in gambling and drinking to distract themselves. Or bullying, because making someone else feel bad is a quick way to perk yourself up.”
The reality is that dressing rooms in any male team sport are always going to be edgy and unreconstructed, with a touch of lawlessness about them.
The only unique thing about Pietersen’s story is that he has chosen to play the arguments out in public.