February 11, 2014

Pity the poor young English cricket fan

For those who grew up watching a team that always had Kevin Pietersen in it, his departure marks the end of an era

KP's departure marks the end of an age of un-English adventurousness in English cricket © Getty Images

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 clichéd, 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