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February 11, 2014

Pity the poor young English cricket fan

Ahmer Naqvi
KP's departure marks the end of an age of un-English adventurousness in English cricket  © Getty Images
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Recently a colleague and I slipped into reminiscing about growing up in pre-2000 Pakistan. One of our fondest memories was recalling the paranoid vigilance and strategic dexterity required to speak to a member of the opposite sex on the phone. In the time of landline telephones, most houses had one number but several "extensions", which meant anyone could pick up the phone to knowingly eavesdrop or otherwise stumble into a conversation at an inopportune time. With permission to speak to the "other sex" a tenuous grey area in most desi households, even a mundane call about homework carried weighty consequences.

The sudden explosion of mobile phones completely and suddenly changed Pakistan (amongst many other societies). Around the turn of the millennium, I recall being told that Pakistan had five million landline connections, which would roughly translate to five million households with access to phones. Within a few years, it was estimated that around 80 million connections existed for mobile phones, which meant that almost half the country had their own phones. Mobiles, which came without any privacy-destroying "extensions", completely changed the rules of the game.

I was reminded of this recently when thinking about English cricket. I began to wonder how an English cricket fan aged about 20-21 now would come to experience their team's fortunes in the next few years.

This fan would have been around 10 or 11 years old when Kevin Pietersen first came into the English side, and so this person would have spent the most romantic, formative years of their fanhood with KP at the heart of the team.

During this time, they would have seen more Ashes series won than lost; a global tournament win; No. 1 status in all formats; era-defining series wins across the world; and a team that won far more often than it lost. They would also have seen five different captains and three different coaches, and through it all they would have seen one flamboyant genius who was the best batsman in the team.

More importantly, they would not have experienced the way English sides from the past tended to be - packed with players who were either talented but lacked confidence or mediocre but courageous. England back then would often be happy to be plucky losers, and were most likely to play the percentages. Indeed, the historical development of other teams in the sport has often involved a stylistic rebellion against the conservative doctrines of the mother country. Yet for almost a decade that historical identity of the English team was held in semi-suspension.

I remember watching a documentary on the 2005 Ashes series where a passage on the first Test at Lord's stood out. The documentary shows footage of England's first innings spliced with an interview asking KP whether he felt nervous coming out to bat in his first Ashes innings with the score at 18 for 3. His response was something along the lines of, "This was Lord's, versus Australia in the Ashes. This was the moment you dream of when you're a kid. How could I be anything but excited?" (He ended up with 57 out of 155, and 64 out of 180.)

It was a simple, perhaps even clich├ęd, response. Yet in the context of English batsmen it was staggering - instead of being overawed or determined to show a stoic sense of doggedness, Pietersen was chomping at the bit. He could not only sense a big occasion, he could also will himself to rise to it.

For all the cerebral pleasure that intelligence, tactics and strategy provide in sport, and for all the narratives that underdog victories give us, there is nothing closer to the heart of a sport's appeal than the spectacle of watching the talented perform audaciously.

I love and respect the grafters and the triers, and those who sacrifice and inspire for greater causes. But the spectacle is the moment that unites those who appreciate the nuance with those who barely understand the rules. It is what transcends the context of a mere game and becomes something that reminds us why we watch the sport.

Few players remind me why I watch cricket quite like KP does, and fewer still have lasted as long as he did. For a Pakistani, it was the definition of a "troublesome influence" that was most illuminating. Our divisive player brought with him fights, drug busts and sexually transmitted diseases in return for 46 Tests. However, for the ECB, 100-plus Tests were not enough to make up for some texts, tweets and dressing-room whistling (along with some other indiscretions whose details have been largely stifled). But rather than Shoaib Akhtar, perhaps a more illuminating comparison of KP's record would be with that of Alastair Cook.

Cook represents the ultimate platonic ideal of the ECB's hopes and dreams. He has been nurtured and pampered and fast-tracked and streamlined for as long as he has played, having others around to glide him from post to post. Of course, all those efforts have realised career figures that are almost the spitting image of those of KP, a player who was rarely ever embraced by the cricketing establishment.

In removing their best batsman after he top-scored in a series where everyone performed disastrously, the ECB acted poorly enough. But to then hear, via unconfirmed rumours, that the reasons for his removal included a heated team talk and the announcement of wanting to score 10,000 runs, bordered on the ludicrous. It also brought about an end to the almost-decade long abeyance of the ECB's straitjacket traditionalism and mistrust of flair.

I am grateful that I had the chance to watch, enjoy and appreciate the visceral artistry of Kevin Pietersen, but my heart goes out to those 21-year-old English fans. They are suddenly going to feel like their mobile phones have been replaced with landlines. The world's changed in a flash.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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Posted by Insightful2013 on (February 14, 2014, 16:21 GMT)

For me, what marks KP out to be an exceptional batsman, is he understands the concept of getting to the pitch of the ball, as evidenced by his forays down the pitch and his huge strides to get to the pitch. This comprehension is the law of batting success. He made it is mantra. This means he'll always succeed. It also stymies me that the IPL who is about the money and returns, making them excellent assessors of ability, are desperate to have him. Somehow the ECB who must have deity accessed knowledge, know differently. I hated that about stodgy fellow Brits. Armchair, telly bound blokes with minimal experiences always venturing opinions and so bound by decorum as to be constipated. It's the best society in the world and I've lived in many, but boy, do we need laxatives! Flair is frowned upon amongst my countrymen and non conformity, ostracized.

Posted by RohanMarkJay on (February 13, 2014, 5:22 GMT)

@py0alb Good point. The game has been off free to air in England for a decade, meaning Sky subscribers are the cricket fans in England. Not hard to see why there has been a marked decline in popularity of Cricket in England since the 1990s, which led to the BBC letting go of its cricket coverage in the late 1990s and then Channel 4 in 2005. Despite the 4 ashes successes (notice KP was involved in all of those Ashes wins) by England in the last 10 years ironically during the Sky coverage era. This hasn't translated into stopping crickets declining popularity in England. Which means Sky will be covering Cricket in England for many years yet to cater for cricket fans in England. Which also means the game won't be returning to free to air TV in England anytime soon. As for me I am a cricket fan and won't mind subscribing to Sky to watch live cricket. Your point about young English cricket fans is very valid due to lack of free to air coverage.

Posted by   on (February 12, 2014, 11:26 GMT)

Great comments, Im not young but agree entirely that KP brought something to English cricket which hadn't been there before a mixture of arrogance & ability, that 2005 series was seismic, recall the last day @ the Oval, Warne came on and turned the match/series on its head. I was listening in the car, so tense I just drove round and round Birmingham while KP gradually in fact quickly took the game away from them. Our record V Australia before that was pathetic, suddenly that series changed everything. I remember my daughter phoning me up and saying Dad, I thought it was only you and your mates who liked cricket but EVEYONE in our office talks about it every day.. she said tell me something to say so I can join in...I said just say Kevin Peterson will become Englands best ever batsmen before he is finished!!

Posted by py0alb on (February 11, 2014, 17:52 GMT)

Actually, most English 20-21 year olds will barely even remember what a game of cricket looks like, seeing as it hasn't been shown on tv in almost a decade now.

Posted by WheresTheEmpire on (February 11, 2014, 14:54 GMT)

I have always enjoyed Pakistani cricket for the breathtaking talent it produces. Like with Australia, an appreciation of talent and a desire for audacious cricket played at speed seems to inform and drive the cricket there.

Of course, not everyone plays cricket this way and for some "audacious" and "arrogant" are both interchangeable and negative (just one reason why the Ashes are as much a clash of traditions and values as a sporting one). It is interesting to see how the KP "rantgate" and sacking has many young and older England fans questioning these traditional views but, sadly, it seems as if potential Shoaib Akhtars and Warnes in England are too hot to handle for the current management.

Posted by that_guy on (February 11, 2014, 14:25 GMT)

Nice bit of script that :) > KP was too Aussie to be in the english cricket team... a lower strike rate, a 15 or so less average, a ugly mug and a door mat personality and he'd still be playing :|

Posted by manram on (February 11, 2014, 12:51 GMT)

Please Ahmer don't put salt on our wounds. Yes it is a great loss for us, a suicide by ECB but let us remain positive as it is not KP who changed the fate of the team. It was Fredie Flintoff, why do you forget. Fredie was the 1st man who altered the defensive mindset into an attacking one. We lost Fredie at just 31 years of age. He was the main match winner at that time, don't you remember. It was a big loss but we did not die, we came back and became No.1 in the world. So bad times for us, but we are not hopeless. We have lost a star but we will get some others Hopefully.

Posted by muzika_tchaikovskogo on (February 11, 2014, 8:11 GMT)

Without KP England will be a good team without ever attaining brilliance. Somehow, anything innovative or out of the coaching manual seems anathema to English cricket culture. No wonder they've never been at the top for any length of time over the last half century.

Posted by muzika_tchaikovskogo on (February 11, 2014, 8:04 GMT)

@Zeshan547: Australia at 2? Dude, they've been champions at home but consistently struggled abroad since a long time now: witness the 0-7 scoreline in their last 9 tests abroad. They are just as good or as bad as the Indians, whom you've placed at 5.

Posted by Zeshan547 on (February 11, 2014, 6:56 GMT)

My rankings according to current form and results of all teams; Test: 1-SA 2-AUS 3-PAK 4-ENG 5-IND 6-SL 7-NZ 8-BD 9-WI 10-ZIM ODI: 1-AUS 2-SA 3-PAK 4-NZ 5-ENG 6-IND 7-SL 8-WI 9-BD 10-IRE T20: 1-PAK 2-AUS 3-NZ 4-SL 5-SA 6-IND 7-WI 8-ENG 9-IRE 10-AFG

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