Since the day Kevin Pietersen turned his nose up at the South African system and packed his bags for England, much has been written about him. From his skunk haircut to his various public bloopers, Kevin Peter Pietersen has been making headlines for years.
Everyone has tried to dissect the workings of his mind. They’ve tried to analyse his often brash and discombobulating behaviour. Some tried to gain insight from those who have played with him. And, perplexingly, the man himself confessed to a former teammate that he’s an introvert.
His personality, though, should matter very little. While it makes for a fascinating narrative on slow news days, Pietersen’s behaviour off the pitch is completely secondary to his feats on it, especially against an Ashes series backdrop.
On Sunday, it will be exactly eight years since he was elected for England for the first time. That match was against Australia, too. He announced his arrival with 57 in the first innings and an unbeaten 64 in the second. His run tallies remained fairly consistent in the next three Tests, but it wasn’t until the match at The Oval when people really took notice. His maiden ton pulverised the Australians and helped draw the match. With that knock, he silenced all whispers that he was a front foot bully and gobbled up the short balls like a keen little piranha. That was a mere appetiser for what would come on the pitch, but if life imitates cricket, then so it should have been a warning sign.
When Pietersen goes to Trent Bridge, it’s always somewhat symbolic. This is the same ground where signs of his unpredictable and often erratic behaviour first started to bubble up in England. A fall-out with coach Mick Newell in 2002 saw him trudge away from the Bridge after two and a half seasons. When Newell first arrived at the ground, he dropped Pietersen. The South African was on the sidelines for just ten days and once he returned, he racked up the runs.
That has been the story for much of his career. Get injured, return in style. Fall out with someone, make a statement. Sometimes it goes the opposite way. Like in 2012, when he scored 149 against South Africa before the textgate-saga eventually broke the camel’s back. Upon his return to the side, he scored 186 against India.
Pietersen might have his issues, but he is England’s best player. As his teammate and fellow former South African Jonathan Trott puts it: I’d rather have him on my team than not.
The Ashes stage is an ideal one for Pietersen. After the text-message saga, peculiar YouTube videos, reintegration and injury concerns, he’s a Jack-in-the-box. The kind who has been kept under the bed with a brick on the lid for far too long.
It’s far too easy to assess Pietersen’s personality and his insecurities. They are so blatant and obvious that when they are put forward as potential explanations for his behaviour, many might ask: so what?
Far more intriguing is Pietersen’s transformation overall. A lower-order batsman, who bowled more than he could bat in his day – that duty is now almost unthinkable. It was at Nottinghamshire where he was first promoted slightly up the order and scored 58 in his first match doing so. He scored his maiden ton in any format batting at number six for the county back in 2001. That was an unbeaten 115 in a 50-over match and he followed it up with another century in the three-day match thereafter. It is Nottingham who fostered him after he couldn’t break into the first team in KZN and it is Trent Bridge which has seen the most of his metamorphosis. Fascinating, that transformation must have been, yet so often forgotten. Another Jack-in-the-box era for a player who seems constantly conflicted.
Pietersen, understandably still largely shunned in South Africa for his stroppy behaviour, deserves credit for what he has managed to achieve. Had he perhaps shown a bit more patience back in his hometown, he might have gone on to scale the cricketing Everest with the Proteas, but he’s not for doing things the easy way.
Pietersen will be one of the brightest stars of the Ashes, not because of his natural ability but because his personality thrives on adversity. After an injury layoff, Pietersen returned with a brutal and unbeaten 177 off 188 balls in a first-class game for Surrey. The last time he played against Australia, he scored just 36, and while he has had many splendid knocks before that, Pietersen doesn’t want to be remembered for being consistently average. He has a point to prove and he has set himself the goal of getting 10,000 Test runs.
Much will be written about him over the coming English summer. His approach will be dissected, but there’s perhaps one line which sums it up and that came from the horse’s mouth himself.
On his debut in 2005, when he scored two half-centuries, his batting partner Geraint Jones met him in the middle for a chat. Pietersen, without flinching, simply said: “Sorry, china. Can’t talk now. Too pumped.”
There is nothing that gets the blood racing quite like an Ashes series, and even if the KP fuse fizzes once more over the summer, he’s too pumped up to care, china. DM
Photo: England’s Kevin Pietersen stretches during the second day of the second test against New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington March 15, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray
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