November 21, 2013

KP: great player or player of great innings?

Pietersen has contributed to defining an extraordinary era in cricket. But the jury's still out on where he stands
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Kevin Pietersen: an architect of innings that live on in the imagination
Kevin Pietersen: an architect of innings that live on in the imagination © Getty Images

He is an extraordinary batsman for an extraordinary era. Kevin Pietersen's 100 Tests, and his international career, have spanned batsmanship's great advance, a perfect storm of hyper-tooled equipment, conducive pitches, frenzied switching between formats, elastic techniques, and the end of a generation of very great bowlers that has taken us to untravelled heights.

And not only has Pietersen spanned it, he has contributed to the reimagining of it: the switch hit and the flamingo have been his offerings to the language that describes the new game. He has played the defining innings of the greatest Ashes series of them all. He has won three urns, and England's first world title. With him, they have been the No. 1 ranked Test match side. He has scored more runs in England shirts than anyone else. He has been central to everything that has happened during these years, both good and bad; he is a lightning rod, a figurehead, a totem, there to be adored, loathed, disputed, argued over. He is England's avatar, onto which we project what we want to project.

Mark Nicholas wrote this week that he has the chance to be England's first truly great player since Ian Botham. Mike Atherton called him the best England player he has seen in the flesh. The name of the infamous fake "KP Genius" Twitter account reflected what many actually think - that he has that electric and uncertain presence that comes with the term. He has been my favourite batsman to watch over the decade.

But is Pietersen a great player or a player of great innings? There is a difference, and it is the question that the next and final phase of his career will answer. The stats niggle away at the notion of unquestionable greatness: the average hovers just under 50, that unequivocal mark, and has done for several seasons. Alastair Cook has more hundreds over a shorter time scale. Pietersen's South African buddy Graeme Smith and the indefatigable Shivnarine Chanderpaul stand above him in stats land, the unwatchable outscoring the unmissable. If he achieves his goal of 10,000 Test match runs, he will still be gazing up at Mahela and Kumar. In one-day cricket, his record is dwarfed by Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis and plenty of others.

Beyond that, he rarely scores more than one century per series (that last time was against India in 2011, before that against South Africa in 2008; he has never made more than one in an Ashes series). He has never made a century in each innings, he has never reached 250. He is yet to have a five-match series that he has dominated in the way that Cook did in Australia last time or Bell did in England.

Instead, he has played innings that live on in the mind and in the imagination, innings that have been hinge-points of games and series, innings played in front of full houses on the great occasions, times where he has sensed with unmatchable instinct that the moment is at hand. There he has delivered in a way that no one else can. So great have they been that a simple mention of the ground is enough to identify them: The Oval, Mumbai, Colombo, Headingley, Adelaide and so on. During those innings he has performed at an altitude known to few; stood shoulder to shoulder with any batsman to have played the game. His courage and his creativity have been shimmeringly brilliant.

This is the cricket he is hungry for, the cricket that turns him on. His appetite is not insatiable in the way that Tendulkar's or Dravid's or Kallis' were and are. His team-mates often speak of his ability to accept dismissal with a shrug. "I've never been scared to get out," he says, and it's true. Minutes afterwards he is on the balcony, chewing his cheek and thinking about next time. Not for him the state of self-recrimination that takes hours, sometimes days, to lift.

His attitude has given rise to the myth that he is an instinctive player, unconcerned with technique or practice. The reverse is true. He thinks deeply about the game, and how he plays it. He spoke brilliantly last summer about how he developed his iron-wristed flick through midwicket to counter Glenn McGrath; how he invented the switch hit to counter captains who were learning how to set fields for his game.

England and the English were always going to be suspicious of a player like him. It's easy to forget the doubts that surrounded his selection in 2005: the prevailing opinion was that he was a one-day merchant, a white-ball slugger unsuited to the undefined expanses of Test match cricket. That reality could sustain only as long as it took for him to start hitting McGrath and Warne into the Lord's pavilion, but the fear and the doubt remain in the snobbish non-acceptance of him. The establishment would wait to hang him out to dry, but they would get their moment.

The madness of the ride he has been on mitigates against consistency as much as his character does. He bats at an emotional pitch that isn't easily recreated, that cannot emerge artificially. It's only the growing calm that appears to surround him and the team since his "reintegration" (another word he has contributed to the lingo) that is starting to suggest a period of sustained heavy scoring of the kind that will wipe away the remaining questions over his exalted position in the history of his era and the game. When it comes - and he is the right age for it - it really will be something.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • xtrafalgarx on November 21, 2013, 14:29 GMT

    I think that's the best way to put it. Player of great innings rather than a great player. There is something about him that just doesn't go the full way of being a great player. When Tendulkar/Lara/Ponting bat, something about them just said "great", Pietersen is a very, very good player, but for some reason he doesn't feel like a great player.

  • on November 23, 2013, 9:25 GMT

    kp is a player of great innings

  • Vilander on November 22, 2013, 20:30 GMT

    Besides Indian batters the only player that i always want to do well is KP..amazing test bat. A lite version of King Viv

  • Ram2212 on November 22, 2013, 18:16 GMT

    For me, the impact of a player on people's minds is what will make history term the player as great or good or genius.

    Among the players I have seen, Warne & Lara are the true genius. Richards, Tendulkar, Dravid, Kallis are great players. Rest including Inzi, Ganguly, Chanders, Cook are good players.

    Let's not bring stats here as it will make SRT the only great & true genius player of the lot.

  • on November 22, 2013, 17:06 GMT

    @alarky

    Re: Sachin

    i) 179 & 54 vs WI Nagpur 1994 177 & 74 vs Eng Nottingham 1996 241* & 60* vs Aus Sydney 2004 214 & 53* vs Aus Bangalore 2010

    ii) 248* and 241*

    iii) vs WI 1994 - 3 match 402 runs 67 avg vs Eng 1996 - 3 428 85.60 vs Aus 1998 - 3 446 111.50 vs NZ 1999 - 3 435 108.75 vs Zim 2000 - 2 362 181.00 vs Aus 2008 - 4 493 70.42 vs Aus 2010 - 2 403 134.33

  • ExciledWorcesterWolf on November 22, 2013, 11:17 GMT

    He is not a great player as he plays only for himself & not the team. Society is worse than it once was because everyone only looks after themselves. His Ashes century of 2005 was not that great - at any stage, almost until the end, if he got out, the Aussies still had a chance to win the game. He was clueless in the UAE last year in the Tests - fantastic in the less meaningful stuff. A lot of statistics are not comparing apples with apples. WG only played 3 Tests every 2 years not the 24 that an England player plays now. Combining runs in 3 separate formats of the game is pointless

  • on November 22, 2013, 8:52 GMT

    In India Kohli is compared with Tendulkar and Richards. I am sure even Sachin or Dravid hasnt played such breathtaking inning s as KP. The Oval in 2005 , 1-1 in Srilanka, and against SA before getting dropped has saved them from embarassments. He is in the Gilchrist or Greenidge mould, they werent greats but they do win matches for you.

  • test_cricket_lover on November 22, 2013, 4:40 GMT

    Batsman: "This is the greatest series I have ever played in"

    Captain: "This is the only series you've played, mate!"

    One can say the batsman was a bit immature here. At the same time, one can also say that the batsman was intelligence enough to "see" his entire career and see where his very first series stands. In this case, the second point of view is correct.

    The captain is Michael Vaughan and the batsman is Kevin Pietersen. His first series, The Ashes 2005, still remains his best series. His first century, a match-saving, Ashes-winning 158 on the final day of the fifth Test against McGrath, Lee and Warne remains his best Test innings.

    Soon after that, this ardent fan knew KP getting to 100th Test is only a matter of time, something which should happen automatically. KP is there now and many congrats to the batsman on his 100th and many more Tests thereafter.

  • isharavithana on November 22, 2013, 3:19 GMT

    KP is a Great Player! one of the best England produced --I am a Sri Lanakan..

  • on November 21, 2013, 23:09 GMT

    KP is a great player. I doubt the mental capacity if those who doubt his greatness. Let's be fair the match winning potential he has, he cannot be anything less than a great. You should burry a record of a batting giant if he can't win you matches, KP can. Something he shares in common with Inzi. They are not hungry for averages. At times they just get out due to boredom. Relishes on challenges. Great players.

  • xtrafalgarx on November 21, 2013, 14:29 GMT

    I think that's the best way to put it. Player of great innings rather than a great player. There is something about him that just doesn't go the full way of being a great player. When Tendulkar/Lara/Ponting bat, something about them just said "great", Pietersen is a very, very good player, but for some reason he doesn't feel like a great player.

  • on November 23, 2013, 9:25 GMT

    kp is a player of great innings

  • Vilander on November 22, 2013, 20:30 GMT

    Besides Indian batters the only player that i always want to do well is KP..amazing test bat. A lite version of King Viv

  • Ram2212 on November 22, 2013, 18:16 GMT

    For me, the impact of a player on people's minds is what will make history term the player as great or good or genius.

    Among the players I have seen, Warne & Lara are the true genius. Richards, Tendulkar, Dravid, Kallis are great players. Rest including Inzi, Ganguly, Chanders, Cook are good players.

    Let's not bring stats here as it will make SRT the only great & true genius player of the lot.

  • on November 22, 2013, 17:06 GMT

    @alarky

    Re: Sachin

    i) 179 & 54 vs WI Nagpur 1994 177 & 74 vs Eng Nottingham 1996 241* & 60* vs Aus Sydney 2004 214 & 53* vs Aus Bangalore 2010

    ii) 248* and 241*

    iii) vs WI 1994 - 3 match 402 runs 67 avg vs Eng 1996 - 3 428 85.60 vs Aus 1998 - 3 446 111.50 vs NZ 1999 - 3 435 108.75 vs Zim 2000 - 2 362 181.00 vs Aus 2008 - 4 493 70.42 vs Aus 2010 - 2 403 134.33

  • ExciledWorcesterWolf on November 22, 2013, 11:17 GMT

    He is not a great player as he plays only for himself & not the team. Society is worse than it once was because everyone only looks after themselves. His Ashes century of 2005 was not that great - at any stage, almost until the end, if he got out, the Aussies still had a chance to win the game. He was clueless in the UAE last year in the Tests - fantastic in the less meaningful stuff. A lot of statistics are not comparing apples with apples. WG only played 3 Tests every 2 years not the 24 that an England player plays now. Combining runs in 3 separate formats of the game is pointless

  • on November 22, 2013, 8:52 GMT

    In India Kohli is compared with Tendulkar and Richards. I am sure even Sachin or Dravid hasnt played such breathtaking inning s as KP. The Oval in 2005 , 1-1 in Srilanka, and against SA before getting dropped has saved them from embarassments. He is in the Gilchrist or Greenidge mould, they werent greats but they do win matches for you.

  • test_cricket_lover on November 22, 2013, 4:40 GMT

    Batsman: "This is the greatest series I have ever played in"

    Captain: "This is the only series you've played, mate!"

    One can say the batsman was a bit immature here. At the same time, one can also say that the batsman was intelligence enough to "see" his entire career and see where his very first series stands. In this case, the second point of view is correct.

    The captain is Michael Vaughan and the batsman is Kevin Pietersen. His first series, The Ashes 2005, still remains his best series. His first century, a match-saving, Ashes-winning 158 on the final day of the fifth Test against McGrath, Lee and Warne remains his best Test innings.

    Soon after that, this ardent fan knew KP getting to 100th Test is only a matter of time, something which should happen automatically. KP is there now and many congrats to the batsman on his 100th and many more Tests thereafter.

  • isharavithana on November 22, 2013, 3:19 GMT

    KP is a Great Player! one of the best England produced --I am a Sri Lanakan..

  • on November 21, 2013, 23:09 GMT

    KP is a great player. I doubt the mental capacity if those who doubt his greatness. Let's be fair the match winning potential he has, he cannot be anything less than a great. You should burry a record of a batting giant if he can't win you matches, KP can. Something he shares in common with Inzi. They are not hungry for averages. At times they just get out due to boredom. Relishes on challenges. Great players.

  • on November 21, 2013, 22:48 GMT

    KP great player? As they always say the world "great'' is really overused in sporting vocabulary.

  • mcsdl on November 21, 2013, 21:32 GMT

    He is bit of an entertainer isn't he... I think most of us would enjoy watching KP bat... However he is not consistent enough to be considered as agreat player..!

  • Westmorlandia on November 21, 2013, 20:27 GMT

    "great player or player of great innings?"

    The difference is imaginary. If you play lots of great innings, you're a great player. If you don't, you can't be.

    He lacks a bit of consistency, but he so often makes a difference when it counts. Cricket is about winning matches, and everything else is a means to that end. Pietersen wins matches for England again and again.

  • alarky on November 21, 2013, 18:41 GMT

    xtrafalgarx, But, 'Sachin Tendulkar has [never] made a century in each innings, [ii] he has never reached 250. [iii] He.... has [never dominated neither in a 3 match nor a 5 match series] in the way that Cook did in Australia last time or Bell did in England' recently. However, Mr Tendulkar is being touted A GREAT BATSMAN! Why does KP have to achieve those very difficult tasks, which only true and special great batsmen achieve at will, and Mr Tendulkar does not even have to achieve at least ONE OF THEM once, and is still said to be great? I would definitely like to see a dossier of tasks that a batsman has to complete (which I'm sure would include the 3 mentioned here by Mr Hotten), before they can be given the special title of great! I think too many non-great batsmen are given the title of great too easily!

  • on November 21, 2013, 13:15 GMT

    "[i] He has never made a century in each innings, [ii] he has never reached 250. [iii] He is yet to have a five-match series that he has dominated in the way that Cook did in Australia last time or Bell did in England". These are three serious impediments that betray any chance of KP being considered among the GENUINE GREATS, at this stage of his career. I personally think that these three ingredients IN ADDITION to the basic set of others, are mandatory criteria that a batsman must satisfy to be considered GREAT! However, KP is still pretty young and relatively new to the game - he's only playing for 8 years so far. But, I'm sure he'd cross these hurdles sometime in the future once "HE'S BEING ALLOWED TO PLAY"! But I know a player, who retired not too long ago with similar ACHIEVEMENT SHORT COMINGS, who is being touted as being "SO GREAT"! Why some have to meet all these requirements (which I too think is necessary), and others can be called great without achieving EVEN ONE OF THEM?

  • analyseabhishek on November 21, 2013, 11:52 GMT

    May be not just yet. But 3-4 more years of intermittent shows of similar great innings and he would be duly upgraded to that highest category! There is no doubt that he is a genius. Greatness should follow without much fuss.

  • Bubba2008 on November 21, 2013, 11:18 GMT

    I don't think he is a great. If anything, he is one of an even rarer breed; a game-changer and player of great innings, who is simply not a great player. He just seems to try too hard, he presses himself and his personality on the viewers. It's as if the bravado is indicative of just how insecure he really is. In any case, he just doesn't seem to have the calm reassurance that has become synonymous with the legends of the game. A very good player he will always be, a great he will not.

  • Charith99 on November 21, 2013, 9:20 GMT

    He is a player of great innings rather than a great player . He is like luxman who has played most wonderfull innings but still just little bit behind being considered a great player.

  • CodandChips on November 21, 2013, 8:16 GMT

    Playing those great innings and having such a good record with his style makes him a modern great. Keep going big man!

  • CodandChips on November 21, 2013, 8:16 GMT

    Playing those great innings and having such a good record with his style makes him a modern great. Keep going big man!

  • Charith99 on November 21, 2013, 9:20 GMT

    He is a player of great innings rather than a great player . He is like luxman who has played most wonderfull innings but still just little bit behind being considered a great player.

  • Bubba2008 on November 21, 2013, 11:18 GMT

    I don't think he is a great. If anything, he is one of an even rarer breed; a game-changer and player of great innings, who is simply not a great player. He just seems to try too hard, he presses himself and his personality on the viewers. It's as if the bravado is indicative of just how insecure he really is. In any case, he just doesn't seem to have the calm reassurance that has become synonymous with the legends of the game. A very good player he will always be, a great he will not.

  • analyseabhishek on November 21, 2013, 11:52 GMT

    May be not just yet. But 3-4 more years of intermittent shows of similar great innings and he would be duly upgraded to that highest category! There is no doubt that he is a genius. Greatness should follow without much fuss.

  • on November 21, 2013, 13:15 GMT

    "[i] He has never made a century in each innings, [ii] he has never reached 250. [iii] He is yet to have a five-match series that he has dominated in the way that Cook did in Australia last time or Bell did in England". These are three serious impediments that betray any chance of KP being considered among the GENUINE GREATS, at this stage of his career. I personally think that these three ingredients IN ADDITION to the basic set of others, are mandatory criteria that a batsman must satisfy to be considered GREAT! However, KP is still pretty young and relatively new to the game - he's only playing for 8 years so far. But, I'm sure he'd cross these hurdles sometime in the future once "HE'S BEING ALLOWED TO PLAY"! But I know a player, who retired not too long ago with similar ACHIEVEMENT SHORT COMINGS, who is being touted as being "SO GREAT"! Why some have to meet all these requirements (which I too think is necessary), and others can be called great without achieving EVEN ONE OF THEM?

  • alarky on November 21, 2013, 18:41 GMT

    xtrafalgarx, But, 'Sachin Tendulkar has [never] made a century in each innings, [ii] he has never reached 250. [iii] He.... has [never dominated neither in a 3 match nor a 5 match series] in the way that Cook did in Australia last time or Bell did in England' recently. However, Mr Tendulkar is being touted A GREAT BATSMAN! Why does KP have to achieve those very difficult tasks, which only true and special great batsmen achieve at will, and Mr Tendulkar does not even have to achieve at least ONE OF THEM once, and is still said to be great? I would definitely like to see a dossier of tasks that a batsman has to complete (which I'm sure would include the 3 mentioned here by Mr Hotten), before they can be given the special title of great! I think too many non-great batsmen are given the title of great too easily!

  • Westmorlandia on November 21, 2013, 20:27 GMT

    "great player or player of great innings?"

    The difference is imaginary. If you play lots of great innings, you're a great player. If you don't, you can't be.

    He lacks a bit of consistency, but he so often makes a difference when it counts. Cricket is about winning matches, and everything else is a means to that end. Pietersen wins matches for England again and again.

  • mcsdl on November 21, 2013, 21:32 GMT

    He is bit of an entertainer isn't he... I think most of us would enjoy watching KP bat... However he is not consistent enough to be considered as agreat player..!

  • on November 21, 2013, 22:48 GMT

    KP great player? As they always say the world "great'' is really overused in sporting vocabulary.

  • on November 21, 2013, 23:09 GMT

    KP is a great player. I doubt the mental capacity if those who doubt his greatness. Let's be fair the match winning potential he has, he cannot be anything less than a great. You should burry a record of a batting giant if he can't win you matches, KP can. Something he shares in common with Inzi. They are not hungry for averages. At times they just get out due to boredom. Relishes on challenges. Great players.