From beach to Blast for Pietersen
Kevin Pietersen will make his most high-profile appearance in England since the plug was pulled so abruptly on his international career when he plays for Surrey on finals day of the NatWest Blast at Edgbaston on Saturday. He knows it is no ordinary game, even allowing for his limited regard for England's professional circuit. It is an occasion that might give a clue to the state of a faltering professional career.
Nothing is impossible for Pietersen if the mood takes him. He has played fast and loose with the game all year, appearing in only T20, presuming that he will eventually succeed on innate talent, but discovering that it is hard to sail up, up and away when a lack of competitive cricket keeps deflating his hot air balloon.
If he succeeds at Edgbaston, and helps Surrey to their first T20 title since they won the inaugural tournament in 2003, it will seem like a huge confidence trick. It might even guarantee the continued interest of IPL, not a competition known for blind loyalty.
Some will recoil at talk of a confidence trick. But it is fair to observe that his preparations for England's major domestic final have been somewhat unconventional. Musings that he needs to play more cricket for Surrey to get in any sort of consistent form have been followed by him doing precisely the opposite - taking a holiday in Miami after his brief appearance in the Caribbean Premier League.
Pietersen has prepared by travelling down the Everglades and taking pictures of beer glasses held in front of hotel pools. He has been swimming with sharks - which must have reminded him of his final dealings with the ECB. He has railed at the paparazzi pictures which showed him strolling down the beach with his family, the face of his son pixelated out in that rather eerie display of two-faced probity. At least they reminded him that he still existed.
It looked like a contented family holiday, just one taken at an unusual time for a cricketer facing his biggest challenge of the summer. It was a counter-intuitive conclusion, to say the least, to decide that what he needed ahead of finals day was a rest cure, especially when it followed an admission to All Out Cricket magazine that he could not successfully live like this.
"I should have probably played a bit more cricket than I have," he said. "I found out this year that just Friday night games doesn't work, and it is good that I found it out because I am only 34 and I am still going to be playing for another four or five years. And I have understood that I need to play a lot more cricket in order to be successful and that is what I am going to do. And if I am playing in England next year I have to play a lot more cricket to be more successful in the shorter form of the game."
Reality had dawned. To seek to exist as a T20 specialist is the most precarious of occupations. Cricket is not like the movies where Harrison Ford can still get the girl even though he is in his 70s. It is made even harder by England's T20 structure with weekly matches stretched over a three-month period. No wonder Pietersen bemoans England's lack of a big-city franchise structure with matches played in a compressed time frame. City franchises might not suit English cricket. They would suit KP.
An inconsequential Royal London one-day game against Somerset at The Oval on Wednesday - Surrey are bottom of Group B, having failed to win a game - would have offered an ideal opportunity to have a hit ahead of their semi-final against Birmingham. Instead he was just boarding his flight from Miami. If not that, the Division Two Championship match against Leicestershire which preceded it when Surrey only drew and their promotion ambitions faltered as a result. That game, at least, had an undeniable value to his county.
But Pietersen chose to stroll the beaches, breaking off to tweet his congratulations to Stuart Broad about England's series victory against India, mentally back in a winning England dressing room to which he will never return. "BOOM," he said, which for those not familiar with urban slang can be taken as an expression of approval. At a time far in the future, formal notes of congratulation from the ECB will probably be written this way.
It feels like talk. Too much talk. But he has never been drawn to meaningless matches in front of small crowds. He has never rediscovered his game in such a fashion. However he envisages the future, this year at least he continues to walk on the edge, to demand the impossible of himself, hoping that the risk will help him rediscover his innate talent.
And, in any case, Surrey's response to Pietersen's promises have been cagey. Richard Gould, their chief executive, is a strong contender as the next chief executive of the ECB, in succession to the outgoing David Collier, so he is not about to prejudge contractual negotiations he might not be able to conclude. "We're not taking anything for granted," he said. "We also need to look at what budget we have available."
For a sportsman who craves adulation - indeed, who draws positive energy from it - 2014 has been a sad sensation. As supporters and critics in England have indulged in an entrenched and repetitive debate about his worth, the likes of which have not been witnessed since Geoffrey Boycott divided English cricket more than 30 years ago, his runs have dried up; his sense of self-worth has become a parade in the face of adversity.
There is a long-awaited autobiography out in early October when he will give his version of events that led to his enforced England retirement. A chat show love-in with his most vociferous supporter, Piers Morgan, is already on the cards, just as Parkinson interviewed Boycott sympathetically a generation ago.
The autobiography is expected to be outspoken. So it should be. After the character assassination he has endured, he is entitled to some recriminations. The ECB is no doubt planning a damage-limitation exercise. It would be good to think that it can bring closure. But once again the next phase of his life is not about to endear him to those in charge of the England game.
To survive as an outsider, he needs to provide incontrovertible proof of his cricketing worth. But in Birmingham, on what is expected to be a fresh, lightly breezy day, he will fear that he will feel further hints of autumn.
He has made only one fifty since England's managing director, Paul Downton, decided after the Sydney Test in January that he had never seen a cricketer so disengaged; that rebellion once again was in the air. Even that fifty, for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL, was hardly cause for celebration: his average of 29 was a considerable decline on his previous IPL return of 42. Delhi, under his captaincy, finished bottom.
Little in the NatWest Blast has altered the perception that England's rejection has knocked his career out of kilter. He sings to the game and it no longer sings back. Crowds flocked to The Oval to watch him in the Blast, but they were wowed instead by Jason Roy, the young pretender, as Pietersen averaged 23 and did not pass 39.
He has looked upon Roy with pride, championing him as an England T20 star of the future, delighting in the association. He has doubtless been an influence in bringing his talent to the fore. If Roy turns out to be the star on Saturday, the least KP will want is to be leaping into the picture. He would have a right to be there.
Then there was that strange liaison with St Lucia Zouks in the CPL. Only Pietersen could imagine that he could somehow flit between England and the Caribbean to play in two T20 tournaments simultaneously. Lured by the money, flattered by the recognition, he imagined himself as a jet-set cricketer. But Zouks were already out of the tournament by the time he got there.
If Pietersen pulls it off at Edgbaston, expect protestations of love for Surrey and contented fulfilling of his offer to play in their last two Championship matches. If he fails, his promise may seem more of a chore. It's still not easy being Kevin Pietersen.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo