June 12, 2014

There's a new columnist in town

Kevin Pietersen has both reach and voice, and he has a cause to unite around too

KP the columnist has shown he can do a lot with little © PA Photos

Parsing the prose of Kevin Pietersen will soon become as irresistible as one of his Flamingo whips through midwicket. It's easy to imagine a hastily convened department at the ECB doing exactly that as, ahead of his autobiography later in the year, he began a new gig as a columnist at the Daily Telegraph this week (a choice that had a hint of mischief about it too, the Telegraph's pages being home to one of Pietersen's harshest critics, Derek Pringle).

With immaculate timing, the column arrived soon after Paul Downton offered an apology for breaking the confidentiality agreement signed upon the termination of Pietersen's central contract, and also in the week of the summer's first Test. #Boom! as KP might put it to his 1.78 million Twitter followers.

He is a formidable rival for the ECB. He has both reach and voice, and he has a cause to unite around too - not just his own treatment but his vision for how the game should be played. It's this that has rung out most loudly from his first sally into print.

The Telegraph cleared the decks for him, as any good paper would. His first column was really two, the first on the Ashes tour and the second on the wider theme of England's new era and what it says about the psyche of the team.

The first combines a philosophical acceptance of his fate with a well-worn run-through of his "the way I play" argument. Most arresting was this paragraph:

Fourteen years ago, I was an off-spinner from Pietermaritzburg who did not know where his life was going. I had a notion that I wanted to make a life in England but had no idea if I would succeed.

There is a lot in these two brief sentences. They credit England for his cricketing transformation ("I was an off-spinner"). He is separating himself from other "non-English" England players who learned their game outside of the country, and saying that his life was changed for the better by coming here. Here is the root of a powerful allegiance to his new home.

He then walks a very careful, very clever line in describing his exit, 13,500 runs later (had to get that in), which is covered by the confidentiality agreement that Downton had to apologise for breaching:

By then [the end of the away Ashes series] I thought that Andy Flower wanted me out. After the Sydney Test, a headline came out claiming Flower had said to the ECB it was either "him or me". He denied saying that but the damage was done.

It's a classic case of doing a lot with very little. All of this information is already in the public domain, thus no break in the agreement. The use of "I thought" makes it clear that this is a personal view brought about by a newspaper story ("the damage was done") but can also be taken to imply a lack of direct communication between management and senior player. It is also the only mention of Flower in the column. Alastair Cook is not mentioned at all. It is a pregnant pause to say the least.

He also states with power an obvious truth of the winter, yet one that has been lost among all the ad hominem arguments flying about:

Now I have had time to reflect… it is clear to me that back-to-back Ashes should never happen again.

He is right. It asks too much of the players, and as he goes on to say, "The senior players were tired and it soon became a really long grind." Test cricket's jewel should not be toyed with for the expediency of board politics or the international calendar. If England versus Australia is reduced to "a grind" in the minds of players who have experienced its untouchable highs, how can the public respect its integrity as sporting theatre? That lesson should extend long beyond the careers of any of those cricketers who took part last winter.

Pietersen's second column has a wider theme too, that of the future of English players and the English game. On this he is blunt:

I would like to see a positive, aggressive England. That is what entertains but I am not sure they have the personnel to play that way.

By "the personnel" he is referring directly to the team that England have selected for Lord's. His own choice is quite different: Cook opening with Nick Compton, Ian Bell at three, Root at four ("I see Root as a player who has it mentally"), Eoin Morgan at five, Gary Ballance at six and Jos Buttler keeping wicket. Ben Stokes would be one of four seamers. ("There isn't a spinner good enough to play Test cricket for England at the moment." Ouch - a barb at the system there perhaps, and if so, a deserved one.)

England have talked about a new era. Well, you need to pick a team the public believe in so they will buy into it. The chat leading into this series has been about a younger side and the public want to see that backed up in selection.

There is a large constituency of England fans who will rally behind his sentiments. As he points out with the choice of "talked about", the new era is at the moment purely conceptual. With his usual confidence, he presumes to know the public mind, and judging by sluggish ticket sales and empty seats at the recent ODI series, he might be right. There is a more subtle line here too. Alastair Cook has been leading the way in suggesting that the thread between team and supporters has been broken, a point reinforced by the public's ousted champion - he is speaking from the outside looking in.

There is plenty more of note. He is setting up a series of Kevin Pietersen Academies.

I have seen how coaching is now especially for kids. Ball on a cone, high elbow and hit through the ball. In my opinion that is not the only way to coach and it's holding back some natural talent. The game has changed and coaching has to change too.

This is a key paragraph because it strikes at the divide between England's cricket and the game played in the rest of the world, a gap that's notional but somehow palpable too. If KP's career has represented anything, it has been this battle between establishment and outsider, orthodoxy and newness, what has gone before and what is to come.

He could have been an avatar for England's next age but he has been sacked and excluded from it, not only as a player but also as a thinker on the game. That thinking is perhaps his greatest and most extravagant talent. He imagined his game into life, and what a game it has been.

Kevin Pietersen claims to have "moved on", but it's surely too soon to know that.

…Should I sit here thinking I should be playing on Thursday? No, because that is when jealousy and negative thoughts come into your head.

"Jealousy" is a strong word to use, and an honest one too. Pietersen wouldn't be human if he didn't feel it, just a little and for a while. He remains England's most compelling cricketer, if for now just in print.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here