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

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