England's Pietersen dilemma August 11, 2012

The Pietersen subtext

Does Kevin Pietersen's contact with members of the South Africa squad betray a longing for what might have been?

It is a normal and perfectly understandable feeling to miss home. But first you have to know where that is. For Kevin Pietersen, home for the last four years has been a swanky abode in Chelsea, southwest London. Home for the last eleven years has been the UK but home, real home, may have always been Kwa-Zulu Natal.

It showed as much in the week where Pietersen's isolation with England led him to text former team-mates in the South Africa squad in search of comfort. Pietersen is reported to have confided in his former countrymen, perhaps revealing a deep-seated longing for a place he left behind more than a decade ago.

His abrupt about turn on Saturday evening, when he again swore undying allegiance to England, only served to emphasie the fact that his sense of belonging had never been more insecure.

You can't blame him for being conflicted or to be dismissive about his confused sense of identity - now officially and perhaps conveniently explained as a temporary aberration.

Who wouldn't be a Durban-dreamer, knowing that the ocean always greets you with a warm embrace, the Golden Mile has been revamped to look like something worthy of its name and the sun always shines, not just on television, but in the actual city? Durban, unlike Johannesburg where the rat race can seem as grey and soulless as it sounds or Cape Town, which can appear too uppity, Durban is welcoming, friendly and real.

Pietersen seems to crave some of that reality. Lost, partly in the allure of making the kind of cricketing money that footballers have been able to command for years and partly in his own sense of self and how difficult he is finding it being part of the England team, Pietersen has spent much of the worst week of his career caught between the Johannesburg and Cape Town of life and it is not difficult to understand why he may crave the third way: Durban.

Durban has now come to him, in the form of the South Africa squad. Although only two of them, Hashim Amla and Imran Tahir, have played in the city and only Amla would have been around when Pietersen was there, the squad, by its nature, is Durban-esque.

One could even go as far as to say they are Pietermaritzburg-esque, with the same simple, wholesome attitudes that define the town where Pietersen grew up in. Sunny, calm and without a cloud of doubt to darken their skies, South Africa appear to be the most problem-free side in world cricket.

South African cricket has not always been this way, of course. Having to contend with underachievement in all formats, particularly major tournaments, and the lack of inclusion bred a variety of issues.

Pietersen remembers one of them as the quota system, which he cited as the reason he left. In reality, the plan to fast-track players from previously disadvantaged backgrounds did not marginalise white players as much as Pietersen would have people believe.

Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers all managed to come through. Marchant de Lange and Richard Levi are examples of young white players who continue to get recognised while Makhaya Ntini, Amla and Vernon Philander may never have come to the fore without some push to find and nurture players of colour. Race is barely a discussion point at higher levels any more as players of all skin colours come through the system. It would be naïve to say all things are equal in South Africa, but efforts are being made to get there.

The 'chokers' tag; the perennial Test underachievement (in terms of ranking); rumours of a clique that controlled the dressing room: all of those issues have shrunk as Gary Kirsten and his management team brought with them a recipe of togetherness, serenity and - depending on how things go in the Lord's Test - a culture of winning.

"Pietersen will never know what it means to be on the other side of the crease when Kallis is playing the textbook cover drive or in the field when Steyn is steaming in"

For someone like Pietersen, who has persistently been seen as an outsider in his adopted country, the bond between the members of the team he could have played for must have struck a chord. The "could" is a big word in that sentence, because when Pietersen left South Africa he was nowhere near contention for the national side. He was considered mediocre and although it may well have been a case of his talent not being spotted and nurtured, he did not register on the radar of those to watch.

That does not mean he did not want to be part of that set-up or look it up to it. In fact, the opposite is true. He has previously called Hansie Cronje his childhood idol and named Jacques Kallis as the "greatest allrounder ever". He did not hesitate to say Allan Donald was one of his heroes, after he heard Donald's praise of his innings at Headingley. He was generous in his assessment of the South Africa attack, labelling them "fighters", and said they "never, ever stop".

Unless Pietersen is up to another four-year qualification period, which is what he will need to be put through if he wants to represent another Test-playing nation, he will never know what it feels like to be part of the South Africa side. He will never know what it means to be on the other side of the crease when Kallis is playing the textbook cover drive or in the field when Steyn is steaming in, with nothing but blood on the mind.

Until this week, it has looked as though he has never wanted to know that. Playing for England was his ultimate, and has now been restated as his ultimate again. He tattooed the Three Lions on his arm, he has captained the side, he has won matches and tournaments for them. He has emphasised his commitment to them as often as he has been given the opportunity to, especially when coming up against the country of his birth.

Recently, that seemed to have wavered. Once, in jest with Ed Cowan over his inability to recognise bread and butter pudding, Pietersen quipped that he was "not English, I just work there". When he was looking for form after a slump in 2009, he went back to Kwa-Zulu Natal's Dolphins, who accepted him with open arms.

The first thing he did after controversially retiring from one-day cricket in May was take a holiday in Durban, the town he left with a chip on his shoulder but returned to when looking for comfort. Then as England played their first ODI after his retirement, against West Indies, he extravagantly flew to South Africa for the weekend to watch South Africa meet England and joked about his mixed allegiance by saying that he had a foot in each half.

He has been seen in conversation with the South African players, reportedly speaking in Afrikaans, sending them text messages that their team manager maintains are only "friendly banter". It may be that Pietersen is longing for home and a cricketing environment he gave up - but has discovered it is too late to go back.

7.30pm GMT: This piece was adjusted to reflect Kevin Pietersen's statement on Saturday evening restating his commitment to England in all forms of the game.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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