ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
World Cup 2011
Pietersen's departure leaves questions swirling
What now for Kevin Pietersen? When he began his England career, he looked to be their most talented player in a generation, and six years on, it looks like he'll end up being the most fascinating
March 10, 2011
When England came back to pull off a remarkable heist against South Africa, it looked as though their erratic World Cup bid had finally kick-started. Soon afterwards, however, Kevin Pietersen announced his hernia problem was too painful to play on and, on Tuesday, Stuart Broad was ruled out the tournament with a side strain. Broad's injury robs the bowling of some much-needed mongrel and reaction to his departure has been understandably regretful. Pietersen, on the other hand, has been replaced by Eoin Morgan and his withdrawal has been greeted with a muted shrug.
"He wasn't going to tear anything so we hoped he would get through the tournament okay, take painkillers when needed and bite the bullet," said Andy Flower, pointedly. Always one to chose his words carefully, Flower welcomed the return of Morgan to the squad as a "no-nonsense sort of cricketer".
Where does this leave Pietersen? When he began his England career, he looked to be their most talented player in a generation, and six years on, it looks like he'll end up being the most fascinating. Gifted an indecent wealth of talent, he was also one of the most fastidiously prepared cricketers in the world, a combination that should have cleared the path for his name to stand alongside the best in history. Up until the last two years he never doubted his ability to reach those levels, but since the captaincy debacle, and the Achilles injury that threatened his career during the 2009 Ashes, Pietersen has been unable to capture the insatiable drive for excellence that was once his hallmark.
Put Pietersen's eye with Paul Collingwood's head and you'd have the champion he should have become. But as it is, Pietersen's more intriguing story has been fuelled by the two forces that have fought to define him. The first one is the quest for greatness that, as a 19-year-old, drove him from his home in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa to Nottingham to pursue his career in England. Against that there is his longing for belonging. That initial move from South Africa made it almost impossible as he found an English public reluctant to accept him as one of their own. Even after sealing the Ashes with the Oval century that remains his defining innings in 2005, Pietersen wasn't fully embraced as the national hero. But his belief was that by weight of runs alone, adoration would eventually come.
In the post-2005 meltdown, Pietersen carried England's batting, checking the youthful flamboyance that had characterised his first year in international cricket to become a more measured accumulator. The memorable ovation after his Lord's century against South Africa in 2008 suggested he had been proved right. "I've never felt so loved," he declared. By the end of that series he had been brought into the heart of the establishment, appointed England captain in all formats, and immediately love-bombed his team to a maiden Test victory and a 4-0 ODI success.
At that stage he looked poised to elevate his game to the elite status that it had long threatened to reach, and he wanted to drag his side with him. Pietersen's unwavering belief in his own methods had been instrumental in him becoming the unconventional player he was. But when combined with an inescapable brashness and naivety, it also landed him in trouble, never more so than with the Peter Moores fiasco. Though he has repeatedly corrected himself since, Pietersen also wanted Flower ousted from his role as Moores' assistant. The England coach is too mature a man to hold grudges but it's a dynamic that can't be ignored. Since that failed coup, when he ended up tossed on the outskirts once again, Pietersen has been unable to let his lust for greatness drive him.
Instead, circumstances contrived to prise open his horizons and his focus has shifted closer to home. The injury that ruled him out of the 2009 Ashes after two Tests gave him a glimpse of his own mortality for the first time and doubts have crept in ever since. The birth of his "little man", Dylan, reinforced the notion that his priorities had moved beyond the field, not least because it showed him he could find the acceptance he needed outside of the dressing-room.
The thoughtless dismissals - be it fluffing a reverse-sweep off Paul Stirling in the recent Ireland defeat or hooking down fine leg's throat at Sydney in the Ashes - betray a batsman who can't create the intensity necessary to use the talent at his disposal. He is not the first. England's frenzied schedule puts a punishing expectation on its best players. Graham Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick were both ever-present in all formats before the strain on family life took their toll.
It is telling that in the hours after the news broke that he would be leaving the World Cup, Pietersen was busy on Twitter announcing his relief to be heading home. "Every cloud has a silver lining they say," he wrote. "Well, as frustrated as I am to be missing the rest of the World Cup & Indian Premier League, I'll be at home with my family & friends. I haven't been home properly since 29 Oct."
By the time the next World Cup rolls around it is difficult to conceive Pietersen still playing ODI cricket. Though he reassured Flower otherwise, and issued a strong Twitter denial prior to the tournament, rumours of his impending ODI retirement didn't come from nowhere. Under Flower and Andrew Strauss England have little taste for sentiment. Their Team England brand blocks entry to anyone unwilling to squeeze the most from their ability, as Samit Patel has found out to his cost. Pietersen still has greatness within his grasp, but if the drive that once defined him has been lost, he too may discover that no individual is bigger than the team.
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