August 5, 2013

What we talk about when we talk about KP

Not just England's best player, Pietersen is also their most interesting. In the age of pro-speak, he is a gift to any writer

Pietersen seems to attract more sniping when he fails than when he succeeds © Getty Images

Kevin Pietersen's legendary dressing-room reintegration may be complete (and you can add "reintegration" to the flamingo and the switch hit as part of his legacy to the game's lingua franca) but his reintegration with the British press remains as distant as ever. Theirs is a relationship of weary rancour: they are a long-divorced couple still taking potshots, still bitter over which one got to keep the Coldplay CDs.

What's curious is that the sniping at Pietersen usually comes when he has succeeded rather than failed. It is designed to fit a well-established narrative into which current events are squeezed. Thus one of headlines after his Saturday century read: "Kevin Pietersen falls just short of the epic hero he craves to be." Another on his press conference ran: "So what is up with Kevin Pietersen, England's sullen saviour?" On Sky's Cricket Writers on TV show he was raked over the coals for the crime of discussing his knee injury.

Just as the England team exists in its bubble, so the English press does too. And just as the team can become detached from public opinion, so can the media. What stood out most about Saturday was how radically the reality of Pietersen's hundred differed from the reported version.

Certain immovable criteria were in place: it was a pivotal day for match and series, a full-house Saturday of the kind that catches his imagination. This is Pietersen's natural habitat. His hundreds are rarely soft ones.

Beyond that, though, this was a deeply unusual innings from him, one in which he went without a boundary for more than two hours after getting 50, when he played and missed several times having gone past 100, and one where his wagon wheel revealed that the trademark fours driven back past the bowler were entirely absent. There was a period during his partnership with Ian Bell when he was outpunched by Bell's silken driving.

The innings' pivotal moment came when Michael Clarke pulled Nathan Lyon from the attack just as the great waves of emotion that often carry Pietersen's batting seemed to be building in their symphonic way, and the "him or me" moment that he talks about was at hand.

Instead, first Clarke and then Pietersen backed off, and the long and responsible dry spell followed. It was a genuine team innings played against type, almost diametrically opposed to the pyro and thunder of his last home hundred, the 149 at Headingley that began the bloodletting.

You would not have known any of this from the way it was reported, because the Pietersen construct interferes with reality. His successes, especially ones that subjugate self to team, are met with gritted teeth. It was almost as if the innings had to be reported a particular way by the papers purely because Pietersen had played it. Twitter and over-by-over updates gave a much truer sense of the way he batted, and that's an interesting shift in the media dynamic. The dead-tree medium reacted to its own agenda, which is becoming distant from the fans and viewers. It just felt old and out of touch.

It's not in Pietersen's character to let it drop, either. He was monosyllabic in the press conference because he knows that the story is already written. He can only make it worse by opening his mouth. In that, he shares something with Tiger Woods, another whose relationship with the media is one of mutual fear and loathing.

He has, though, struck up an interesting relationship with Ian Ward, who conducts the post-play interviews for Sky Sports. Ward is excellent, avuncular and analytical, and he drew from KP some interesting lines about his approach to success or failure in batting. He accepts into his heart the precarious nature of his professional life. It has nothing to do with being an "epic hero". It's simply the batsman's lot: he does what he does alone, inside this strange team game.

Pietersen is not just England's best player, he's their most interesting. In the age of pro-speak and closed shops, he is a gift to any writer, and no worthy one should diminish him with received wisdom and cliché.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here