May 23, 2013

The divine madness of Kevin Pietersen

Players who compel you to watch them and be engaged in the game, when absent, stir a yearning in the spectator that has nothing to do with team loyalty

His absence leaves a hole only he can fill © Getty Images

There is a certain uncomfortable clamminess in contemplating the England batting order without Kevin Pietersen in it. Is that it? you find yourself asking, this collective of relentless technical proficiency, with its whiff of executed skills and coaching pathways? Cook, Compton, Trott, Bell, Root, Bairstow… they're all very good and everything, but you know, is that really it?

The deep pleasure in batting lies in its idiosyncrasy. It can be as individual as a fingerprint. Boycott was the supreme technician, yet the joy of repetition was just one half of watching him play. His obsessive immersion in his task, the amount of meaning that it carried for him and the almost comical value he placed upon his wicket could become mesmerising. Sometimes he would bat with Gower, whose apparent ambivalence to all of the aesthetic beauty he was creating etched even more deeply the differences between two members of the same side. Lara sometimes entered a place where few batsmen have gone, a fabled Valhalla where boundary followed boundary for hour upon hour, day upon day, a feverish dream of extended mastery. There was Viv Richards, a cruel emperor satisfied with nothing less than the subjugation of his enemy, and Adam Gilchrist, the best friend you never had, playing a World Cup final like it was a Sunday afternoon in the park. And then Sehwag and his stunning distillation of a complex skill to an equation that read "see ball, hit ball".

Amla, Inzi, Yousuf, AB, Gayle… there are many more, and nothing links them save for one thing. They had and have "it", whatever you want to call it, a watchability best defined by the feeling left behind when they got out: an emptiness that rose above team loyalty and extended into a love for what the game could be. Simply put, they invested the spectator in their immediate destiny; they encouraged a sense of the possible.

If the departed era of Australian dominance proved anything, it was that players like these are a gift. They cannot be summoned or produced, however competent the systems beneath them. Rather, good systems produce good players, like those in England's top six. Their absolute competence is proof of a strong and determined culture in the organisation.

As his entire career has suggested, Pietersen is an outsider, an outlier, a one-off. What he brings to England is a touch of divine madness, a strange kind of fury that changes matches, alters series, compels people to engage with him and with the game. Nothing becomes him more than the effect of his absence. It leaves a hole that only he can fill.

It's a hard thing to consider without appearing to disparage the rest of England's batting. They are admirable players, not flattered by their stats. Cook and Trott have a murderous consistency, and Trott offers the bonus of a deep well of ticks and quirks at the crease. Bell is that strangest of things, an uninteresting enigma. He offers plenty of vacuous beauty. Joe Root is, in the nicest possible way, fighting stylistic comparisons to Mike Atherton. Pietersen remains their galvanising force, the one amongst them who genuinely commands the stage.

It's a quality that feels like it is more highly valued by spectators than anyone else. Coaches prize consistency and predictability because their teams exist in a hostile universe filled by the unexpected and the unwelcome. Control the controllables is at the centre of their credo, and a talent like Pietersen's is essentially uncontrollable.

What will England do when he has gone? This week the ECB set out its four-year plan for a cycle that ends in 2017. That cycle will probably see the end of Pietersen, Anderson, Swann and other match-winners. Their occasional absences have suggested that the layer of talent beneath them is perhaps not as deep as it seems.

Yet those are the professionals' concerns. The history of cricket proves that their ebb and flow are beyond the control of coaches and systems, and the survival of the wider game doesn't depend on them. Instead it relies on the unpredictable and random emergence of greatness in all of its variety. Kevin Pietersen is unimaginable in his way, and the man who eventually fills the kind of hole he will leave is equally difficult to foresee. In 2005, Pietersen hit Warne and McGrath into the pavilion at Lord's, snap-hooked a short ball back past Brett Lee at The Oval, introduced the flamingo through midwicket. In 2006, he switch-hit Murali for six and began a debate about the rules of the game. These things are hardly commonplace now - back then, they emerged from nowhere; he summoned them.

He summoned people to watch them, too. An England side without him simply demonstrates the scale of his achievement. How we miss him when he's not there.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harshavardhana on May 25, 2013, 17:50 GMT

    While arguing with friends on buying tickets (before IPL started) for DD match, I just reminded them about KP. They agreed. But we cancelled plan the moment KP got injured. I am not a fan of eng cricket, but watch KP on TV even if he is defending. But others, sorry. My wife want to see serials

  • Dummy4 on May 25, 2013, 14:29 GMT

    Kevin Petersen has an aura about him; his batting is regal a la Tendulkar is his hey days; audacious shots and great technique.

  • Cyril on May 25, 2013, 14:02 GMT

    Not just a superb batsman, but also a top bloke. I've met Kevin a few times briefly at The Oval and he is always polite and friendly. The press seem determined to paint him as arrogant and selfish and this has rubbed off on many England fans who think the team better off without him. Anyone who thinks Bairstow will ever be a replacement for KP it nuts.

  • David on May 24, 2013, 8:02 GMT

    Amla is probably the best batsman at the moment in terms of technique and consistency but KP is the most dangerous. When he is "on" you can't look away, much like the comparisons between Tendulkar and Lara.

  • ESPN on May 24, 2013, 7:40 GMT

    Great player!

  • Karabo Obakeng on May 24, 2013, 6:44 GMT

    Waaaaaaaahahahaha, "KP the best batsman in the world at the moment"?!! Best joke I've heard this year. Well...probably not the gem that "Matt Prior the best batsman in the world" or "Anderson more skilled than Steyn" was, hahahaha, but still. Thanks for the laughs Front-Foot-Lunge and Thakur_ke_aadmi. You should both really think about patenting your jokes, and maybe Swan and Saker should tag along too when you finally(hopefully) decide to. Gosh, my sides hurt, I think they may be split.

  • Art on May 23, 2013, 20:00 GMT

    He's great to watch, though I wonder if we have slightly rose-tinted specs due to his absence? He is a much more conventional batsman now in Tests than he was in 2005. He can also play annoying, lazy-looking innings, where he doesn't feel he can go on a proper attack but can't quite be arsed to focus on accumulation either, and then he gets out wafting. Still want him in the team though.

    Also, in fairness, he's obviously a Saffer. But we'll forgive him that.

    Regarding Belly, I like him too, and I like it when he comes in. He does have a bit more pizzaz than the top 3. He hasn't done much in recent tests, and I'd like to see him take a bit more on his shoulders, but he can be great to watch. I would also like to see him bat at 4, with KP at 5 - I think it would suit them both.

  • j on May 23, 2013, 14:37 GMT

    @PatrickJM: "The saffer"? Just because KP came out and said "My name's Kevin Pietersen and I am English. I have English parents, I have paid all my taxes as a working adult in England and I choose to be in and live in England. And to top it all off my passport says I am" - I sense you're just a little jealous. Please get over it.

  • Cliffontong on May 23, 2013, 5:33 GMT

    Purely from a "watchablity" perspective my favorite test batsmen are Amla, AB and Pietersen.

  • Tushar on May 23, 2013, 3:52 GMT

    Probably the best batsman in world cricket right now (Amla a close second, in my view), fantastic to watch and has consistently performed in every form of the game. Brilliant player!