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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Android on November 23, 2013, 9:25 GMT

    kp is a player of great innings

  • Muthuvel 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

  • Sreeram 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.

  • Dummy4 on November 22, 2013, 17:06 GMT


    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

  • Neil 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

  • Dummy4 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.

  • Sathish 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.

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

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

  • Dummy4 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.

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2013, 22:48 GMT

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