Short Cuts

David Runciman

Some professions attract people suffering from extreme forms of narcissism (or as it’s sometimes called, narcissistic personality disorder). Politics is one; sport is another. A recent political example is Kevin Rudd, the two-time Australian prime minister, a man with a toxic personality and enormous political gifts. The Australian Labor Party saw that Rudd, who has always been popular with the public, was their route back to power after more than a decade in the wilderness (‘Kevin 07’ was the pithy slogan). But once in power, the party discovered it couldn’t bear to be in the same room as him. His disdain for his colleagues, his paranoia, his monomania and his disloyalty proved too much: there was a coup and he was ousted. Then, having dumped him, the party found it needed him back, partly because he was its one proven winner, and partly because Kevin on the outside was just as poisonous as Kevin on the in (the drip-drip of self-serving innuendo never ceased). A seemingly contrite and humbled Rudd returned to the fold. It was too late: the party was now on a hiding to nothing and Rudd led them to defeat in the general election. So they dumped him for good.

Can’t work with him, can’t win without him: Kevin Pietersen is the Kevin Rudd of English cricket. Kevin ’05 helped England regain the Ashes after a long losing streak, and the paying punters warmed straightaway to his brash exuberance. His teammates were warier but indulgent. Over time that indulgence turned to suspicion and then to outright contempt. Pietersen never lost his hold over the crowd but the report from the dressing room was that no one who spent extended periods of time in his company could stand him: ‘a complete cunt’, as Andrew Strauss let slip in the commentary box this summer. That, incidentally, was a word that tended to attach itself to Rudd as well. Accused of describing Rudd in those terms, the former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer replied: ‘I don’t use the c-word but I do use the f-word pretty freely and I can tell you Kevin Rudd is a fucking awful person.’) When Pietersen was discovered a couple of years ago to have been sending derogatory texts about his England colleagues to his friends in the South African dressing room (Pietersen grew up alongside many of them and distance seems to have preserved a few of those relationships) he was finally kicked out of the team. But England weren’t the same without him and after an awkward period of truth and reconciliation he was allowed back in. By now the whole team was in decline and when it fell apart, with a hammering in Australia last winter, all the old wounds reopened. Pietersen turned on everyone. Everyone turned on Pietersen. There was no way back. He was gone for good.

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are described as ‘an overwhelming need for admiration’ coupled with ‘a complete lack of empathy towards others’. Pietersen’s new autobiography, in which he settles old scores and acquires plenty of new enemies, displays both these traits in spades. There is almost no exchange, no matter how trivial, from which he doesn’t emerge as either victimised or vindicated. Friendship is there to bolster his status as a superstar; otherwise it is betrayal. Everything is, quite literally, about him. Whether NPD conceals deep-seated anxieties and insecurities that can’t be faced or is simply evidence of a vastly inflated sense of self-worth is something psychologists disagree about. Pietersen makes a lot of his moments of self-doubt, especially at the crease, where he sometimes feels out of his depth. But most of this sounds like window-dressing. He never doubts himself when it comes to dealing with others. If people don’t like him it’s because they are jealous or callous or stupid. They haven’t thought hard enough about what his needs are. He seems incapable of understanding that they might have motives and interests of their own.

It’s a personality trait that the structure of cricket seems to exacerbate. Some of Pietersen’s sense of grievance comes from the fact that the bowlers responsible for much of England’s success (Broad, Anderson, Swann) had built up their role, as though they were the ones who mattered. For Pietersen, cricket is a batsman’s game; bowlers are there as extras to do the heavy lifting. The batsman is alone, exposed, standing or falling by his own genius. ‘When you are bowling,’ Pietersen writes, ‘it is 11 against one. When you are batting, when someone is about to chuck a ball at you with all the energy they have, in front of an Ashes crowd … you are as on your own as it is possible to be in a packed place.’ The bullying culture Pietersen claims took hold in the England dressing room came in part from the bowlers’ habit of berating fielders for their mistakes in front of the rest of the team. Pietersen’s outrage seems to stem from his sense that the bowlers should know their place. Who are these clodhoppers to tell other people what to do? The biggest bully of all, Pietersen claims, was Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper and someone he treats as little more than a functionary (though Prior could argue that wicketkeepers – like goalkeepers – are more exposed than anyone because theirs tend to be the conspicuous mistakes). Prior takes to calling himself ‘the Big Cheese’. It makes Pietersen sick.

He says that one reason the team froze him out was that they couldn’t stomach the riches he was earning from the IPL, the Indian Premier League, where his contract was auctioned for $1.5 million. He has no sympathy for the gripers. ‘The IPL is professionalism taken to its logical extreme,’ he writes. ‘All the bullshit and hypocrisy have been burned off.’ This is laughable. The Twenty20 format of the IPL is cricket designed to favour big-hitting batsmen; bowlers are just cannon fodder, which means they can’t command the big bucks, no matter how good they are. The prevailing cricketing order is biased in Pietersen’s favour while he remains convinced that it’s conspiring against him. Twitter feeds his self-regard and his sense of persecution; social media provide narcissists with limitless resources for reading about themselves, something Pietersen does incessantly. He also scours the press for anything that might indicate that his side of the story is being neglected. He even has the narcissist’s habit of referring to himself in the third person. When he reads a damaging leak on New Year’s Day about his relationship with the then coach Peter Moores, it confirms his feeling that the cosmic order is against him. ‘Happy New Year, KP,’ he tells himself. ‘Look, it’s raining shit outside.’

Pietersen’s book is frequently coupled with the new one by Roy Keane, another inveterate troublemaker and relationship-breaker. There are ostensible similarities: at the centre of both accounts is a monumental falling out with the coach (Andy Flower in Pietersen’s case, Alex Ferguson in Keane’s) that culminates in a brutal dressing-room showdown. Things are said in each case that can’t be taken back and can’t be repaired. But really the two books are worlds apart. Moving from Pietersen’s perspective to Keane’s is like going from a fetid and airless room into the bracing open air. Keane is not a narcissist. He is a troubled man who has trouble dealing with his own anger. He is often wracked with self-doubt: when he lacerates his fellow players he wonders if he’s gone too far and tries to register how they might be feeling. He says things in the heat of the moment that would have been better unsaid, and though he never regrets what he’s done, he does recognise the pain he’s caused. How different he is from Pietersen is apparent from the very first story in the book. Keane is facing an FA tribunal because of the claim in an earlier autobiography that he had deliberately set out to break the leg of an opponent (Alf-Inge Haaland). He has called his ghost-writer, Eamon Dunphy, as a witness to explain that this was not what he meant. When Dunphy is asked if Keane set out to hurt Haaland, he replies: ‘Without a doubt.’ It’s a betrayal. But Keane understands. ‘He wanted to distance himself from it, and I could see his point of view.’ Those are words Pietersen would never write.

Keane is not Kevin Rudd. He’s more like Gordon Brown, a brooding, difficult presence, not someone you’d much want to be stuck in a lift with but a player you would always prefer to have on your team. When Keane left Manchester United he didn’t leave chaos behind him: it was a clean break and the team regrouped and moved on, as Keane did, even if both parties were haunted by a sense of what they were missing. Pietersen’s slow-motion exit from the England set-up has been a disaster for all concerned. The poisonous mess he has left behind will take years to clear up. The same could be said of Rudd’s legacy to the Australian Labor Party. Narcissism may be a self-referential condition, but it ensnares an awful lot of people in its sticky web.