February 5, 2014

The end of the Pietersen project

Leaving a series of disgruntled teams in his wake, Kevin Pietersen has only himself to blame for the sorry end to his England career

Tumbling, falling into the abyss: the Pietersen project appears to be over. At its core was a marvellous talent, studded with genius and driven by a contrary mind that has achieved its death wish. Whatever your faith, and even the believers might not argue this: Kevin Pietersen has brought pretty much everything upon himself. "It's not easy being me," he said not so long ago. Apparently not. And it is not easy dealing with you either, Kev. If it was, this sorry business would surely have been avoided.

Almost certainly it was Alastair Cook who called time. "It is him or me" will have been the message at recent meetings, and Paul Downton, the new managing director of England team affairs, concluded it must be "me". At least with that choice the rest of the team would stay on board the train. At the rate they have been hopping off, the risk of "him" was too great. Cook feels unforgivably let down. Allegedly, Pietersen became unmanageable in Australia, though, as this column has argued before, it would be no bad thing if we were told more of the facts. Whispers and rumours are unpleasant and destructive. Michael Vaughan is right in saying we need an explanation. After all, the biggest drawcard in English cricket has been fired for reasons other than his play.

Prior to the first Test in Brisbane, Pietersen's 100th, I interviewed him at some length for a television profile. He spoke brightly, admitted mistakes, stated clearly that he had 10,000 Test runs in mind, and lavished praise on his captain. Cook, he said, was a top bloke and an excellent leader. Cook, of course, had brought Pietersen in from the cold a year earlier. In another interview Cook said Pietersen was a rare talent and that 100 Tests was a very special achievement and to be applauded. The words were considered but not obviously warm. Perhaps Cook knew he had wrapped his arms around a time bomb.

Some of the team really don't like Pietersen. A few do. Only the fresh faces will still be working it out. Without KP around, Graeme Swann might still be playing and Andy Flower could still be in charge. Equally, without him England would not have won in India and may well not have won many other high-octane series in which he has changed the course of matches. Can't live with, can't live without. But not anymore.

It is too simplistic to say that Pietersen should have been managed more sympathetically. How many back-stabbings can a captain and coach take, if that is what was happening of course? Peter Moores, Andrew Strauss, Flower and Cook, all bloody from KP wars? Almost certainly. Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher were lucky to have him at the start, when his ambition was defined by the present and by performance, not by money and mood. Equally, it is daft to say that his shot selection in Australia could be excused by the tactics of counter-attack. With power comes responsibility and too often - in four of the five Tests, come to think of it - Pietersen perished without reference to the situation in which the team found itself. The nub of Downton's quote is the phrase: "We must start to rebuild, not only the team but the team ethic and philosophy." That's a slam dunk if ever there was one.

Someday down the track, he will wonder why on earth he was so contrary. It is easier to look back at your talent and then understand what you did, or did not, do with it

Goodness knows what happens if a Pietersen man is appointed as the new coach and Cook fails to last as captain. Perhaps there is a twist in this spicy tale yet.

The Pietersen project began at Nottinghamshire, after Clive Rice invited him over for a crack at county cricket. Unhappy in Natal, where the quota system denied his gifts the exposure he was sure they deserved, Pietersen jumped at the chance of a new life. Batting on a good pitch in a Test match arena, he startled everyone with his adventurous, often unorthodox style and then amazed them with the results that accrued. But he fell out with the folk at Trent Bridge and moved to Hampshire, where Shane Warne bellowed from the canopies of the sparkling new Rose Bowl pavilion about the boy from Pietermaritzburg who had to play for England immediately. The selectors agreed and against Australia in the glorious summer of '05, a star was born.

The slog-sweeps against Warne, the off-drives against Glenn McGrath, the flamingo-like swivel shots against Jason Gillespie and, best of all perhaps, the hook strokes from 150kph deliveries by Brett Lee, took the breath away from all of us in awe of the instinct and bravado. Of England batsmen since the war only Denis Compton, Ted Dexter and Ian Botham had played with such abandon. It was incredible to watch and it stayed so for much of a career that gave the England team a dimension it had lacked since Botham fell off the mountain of greatness.

These men of Southern Africa who have worn English colours are an interesting bunch. Tony Greig became captain but was sacked for desertion to Kerry Packer. He was a fine cricketer who knew no backward step and he was an easy man to follow. Allan Lamb had a rare talent and the stomach for a fight but he loved a party. To some degree this betrayed him but, conversely, it may be why England embraced him - an embrace that did not go unrequited. Like Lamb, Robin Smith relished the fastest bowling but found the patience and touch required for more subtle challenges hard to come by. Had self-belief rather than shyness been at the helm of his character, Smith might now be ranked among England's best. In summary, you would want all three by your side in the trenches.

Graeme Hick made runs for a living, tens of thousands of them at Worcestershire, the place he called home. But he found the spotlight difficult and retreated into himself in a way that Greig, say, or Lamb, would not understand. The more he played at Test level, the greater the pain. Jonathan Trott, with his practical method and nice sense of humour, appeared to have the balance right. But what do we know of cricketers at night when the demons of self-doubt and pity creep under the covers and invade the mind? Suddenly, inexplicably from the outside, it all became too much. Trott's future is in doubt.

Certainly, there is something in not being "English" while playing for England. Pietersen is tired of the references to South Africa. Courage is required to make the break from the land of your birth and to be adopted elsewhere. Pietersen's journey has been especially complicated. Having fallen foul of Nottinghamshire, he moved on from Hampshire too. Now it seems England have moved him out. There is only one common denominator.

Someday down the track, he will wonder why on earth he was so contrary. It is easier to look back at your talent and then understand what you did, or did not, do with it. Having known him quite well, I am saddened by this unattractive ending. There was probably an answer in there somewhere but not with the people charged with making the decision. They know too much and Downton had to take heed of their counsel.

His talent is a terrible loss to English cricket. The days will be duller without him, the team less interesting to watch. He will soon tire of a mercenary life in the world of T20, for his skills are greater than the parameter of the game. Oh dear.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harsh on February 10, 2014, 9:04 GMT

    Kevin Pieterson was the equivalent of a Viv Richards of modern times.He tore great pace attacks with the ferocity of a tiger and ranked amongst the top match-winning batsmen of his era.Few batsmen posessed Pieterson's range of strokes,power and reflexes.He deserved a test average of above 50 as he played such a crucial role in England's big test match and series victories.One of the best ever batsmen of genuine pace bowling.His aggressive batting could change the complexion of a game 180 degrees.Reminded me a lot of Ted Dexter with his cavalier approach.Arguably Kevin ranked amongst the all-time greats and earned a place amongst the top 100 cricketers of all.Above all an outstanding entertainer.

  • ESPN on February 8, 2014, 23:31 GMT

    At natal kp played as a spinner, natal had pat symcoc, SA test spinner and dereck crookes SA odi spinner......what's the quota?great loss for England but please leav the quota system references!!!!

  • Jim on February 7, 2014, 21:43 GMT

    Mark, I can understand your perspective, but is there another explanation here? And that is, that the ECB plan to reinstate Peter Moores as director of cricket? It's not crazy, he's a fine coach, he's English, he's worked with this team before, and clearly can't work with KP.

  • Dummy4 on February 7, 2014, 21:07 GMT

    Those that know what happened at Sydney (and are censored from saying what they know) probably understand why Pietersen had to go. It went further than Botham's antics, Flintoff like a puppy in comparison. About 100 England fans heard the debacle. It was way too loud to be private. It was a frankly disgusting. Cooke was shattered by the end of it. The team physio seemed to be caught in it for a while (and got told where to go). I know people who witnessed it have tried to post what they know here - only to be censored. I can only imagine George Dobell and others who are defending Pietersen are not aware of what went on, what was said, and how it was said. Cooke might not be the showstopper Pietersen is, but his stats stack up, he's a thoroughly decent man, has the respect of his team, he did not deserve to be treated that way. If people knew what happened they would understand that Pietersen HAD to go. No one in that team could play with him again. I hope it all comes out soon!

  • Ashley on February 7, 2014, 20:43 GMT

    Its a very sad day for cricket. As an Aussie I sat up all night and watched that innings against South Africa in 2012 at Trent Bridge? and wondered whether a more audacious, brilliant innings had ever been played in the history of the game. One can't help feeling that the English public have lost out big time because of poor management by the support staff and captain. Hope he comes and plays for the Sydney Sixers in the BBL next summer. The SCG will have the 'house full' signs up everytime he plays

  • Stephen on February 7, 2014, 20:39 GMT

    Managing difficult people! In truth the best method is to get rid of them as early as possible, regardless of how good they are individually. I've made the mistake of trying to manage these types before, because they had talent I thought we were better to keep.

    I was wrong. You don't fully realise how great the negative impact they cause is until they are gone. Suddenly everybody can stop tiptoeing around them and putting effort (and its a lot) into trying to keep them happy. The negative atmosphere disappears. Suddenly the rest of the team will start enjoying cricket (or business) and the team environment again.

    England's mistake was in not doing letting KP go a long time ago.

  • Tom on February 7, 2014, 17:19 GMT

    Mark Nicholas is right. At some point you have to stop blaming the people who "failed to manage" Pietersen, and start blaming him for being impossible to manage. It's not just Strauss and Cook who have struggled with him; they've just had the misfortune to encounter him when he was established and powerful. And yes, he had power, because he was one of England's most senior batsman in terms of experience and public support, not to mention his talent. The ECB appointed him captain and he responded by falling out with the team director and trying to get him fired. Strauss and Flower rehabilitated him and were rewarded by being backstabbed in 2012 (not to mention KP's attempt to take the credit for the 2010-11 Ashes). Had it not been for KP, Strauss (one of England's best ever captains in terms of results and a player England have still not replaced) might have stuck around. Cook rehabilitated him again and as a result his other players are jumping ship. KP's had his chances.

  • Mr on February 7, 2014, 17:06 GMT

    I think it's quite clear he had it coming as Mark Nicholas points out so eloquently. Pietersen was given numerous chances and seemed incapable of reigning in his ego. It's sad to lose such a talent from the Test Match arena, but England have to rebuild after the drubbing they just got handed by Australia. Pietersen is obviously seen as an obstruction to the rebuild, and the team has to come first.

  • Kunal on February 7, 2014, 16:53 GMT

    This article comes as a surprise. Its pretty easy to acknowledge from commonplace wisdom that great talent comes with its own whims and fancies and has to be managed, nurtured and handled with care. With power, comes great responsibility is an inappropriate phrase to use in this context as Pieterson was never really instilled any position of power in the team. Cricket is a team sport but not all personalities in the same team need to be alike for a team to succeed. We have an example with the Windies team of the 70's and 80's. Too much undue importance is being put onto ethics and philosophy of life in Cricket these days, without realizing that greats like Pieterson have to sweat out lesses in practice to perfect the art of succeeding at the biggest stage. ECB will surely in time regret their decision and as for KP, I'm sure he has a world of followers and well wishers. Anybody who's played a 100 tests has surely entrenched his name in history of cricket.

  • Dummy4 on February 7, 2014, 16:05 GMT

    a real JOY to watch in the modern game!!!