Power plays

Tensions between the talent and the coach are growing

It's a time of New Year's resolution for England's cricket team. This week they arrived in the West Indies under a new captain and coach, the old ones - Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores - having gone the way of a so-called power struggle, although I fail to see how it's much of a struggle when you both lose.

Anyway, some of Andrew Flintoff's words, as they prepared for their departure, had me thinking. Flintoff, one of the most influential players in the England dressing room, is also considered one of the all-round best blokes in sport and that was perhaps why it sounded more than cliché when he told an interviewer that the England team had "everything we need to perform" and that "we've got to take some responsibility" for their own failures. "We don't want to get into the football scenario," he said, "where the team gets beat and the manager gets sacked." What a heartening motto, and one that seems to place "player power" where it belongs: on the pitch.

Of course, as Flintoff suggests, cricket has a long way to go before it can compare to football, where the high stakes mean that unsuccessful managers last weeks rather than months. (Since the advent of the Premiership, football management has become one of those insecure professions your parents beg you not to go into - like acting, trapeze artistry or hedge fund management.) Having said that, there's no doubt that player power - which was, self-evidently, at the root of Pietersen and Moores's differences - has plenty of recent precedent in cricket. Shane Warne's cold war with Australia coach John Buchanan reached a climax at about the time of the 2005 Ashes series, and any England fan can gleefully tell you the outcome of that one. Those who take on the role of coaching India's team, meanwhile, know they have as much hold on their position as a Big Brother housemate.

Cricket managers traditionally hold a slightly secondary role to the captain in cricket. In football, of course, the manager is supposed to have the ultimate say. But increasingly it's not just the chairmen that football managers have to please or placate, it's the players as well. Juande Ramos at Tottenham Hotspur, Bernd Schuster at Real Madrid and Roy Keane at Sunderland are a few of the recent victims of that terminal affliction, "losing the dressing room".

As long as there have been egos in sport - and I think we can safely say that the gymnasia of ancient Greece had their own, oilier, versions of Kevin Pietersen - there has been tension between the talent and the coach. But it does feel like we're in the middle of a subtle power shift. When the combined total value of a football squad equates to a small country's defence budget, of course the players are going to feel their worth. Their collective price tag makes them considerably more valuable than a manager - and a player's transfer fee is a kind of job insurance in itself.

So, Shay Given can issue a statement through his lawyer explaining that he's not happy with the direction of his own club. Even a few years ago you couldn't have imagined a fairly middle-of-the-range goalkeeper being able to make such a public declaration of dissent and not facing ridicule, or the instant sack. We've come a long way since the days when professional sportsmen were paid a pittance and treated like hired hands. It will be interesting to see, in the coming months, whether the manager bites back.

Hunter Davies is away

Emma John is a sports journalist and deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly magazine. She writes on the arts for The Guardian and is a former Time Out theatre critic.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?