The Unenglishman

Pietersen would have us believe he is as English as the next guy. Hardly



Pietersen - the antithesis of a British stereotype © AFP
During the recent Mohali Test the debutant Piyush Chawla sent down a respectable legbreak, of the kind patted back by generations of anxious English batsmen who thought spinners made the ground break open and sprout demons. Kevin Pietersen simply plonked his telescopic front leg down the pitch, swung his bat like a scythe and sent the ball scudding into the stands at midwicket, scattering spectators. Easy as you like.

The shot signified much more than six runs in the scorebook. It said: I am the big boy and you are the squirt. I am strong and you are weak. "I don't let spinners bowl to me," said Pietersen afterwards. And it is not just spinners: no Englishman has regularly bullied attacks that way for a generation, not since the autumn of Graham Gooch's career. So why has Pietersen succeeded spectacularly where so many dozens of others failed?

Clearly, coming into a settled team helps. As does his extra height, which he exploits to the maximum, getting right forward or back. Extra reach helps defuse the doosra - if you get to the pitch of the ball it doesn't matter so much which way it spins. And it makes it hard for any bowler to settle into a line-and-length groove.

But extra height and extreme power didn't make Graeme Hick a world-beater. What really sets Pietersen apart is that will to dominate. Compared to other young English players, he thinks differently and behaves differently. Which raises the question: is his success somehow connected with his un-Englishness?

Pietersen doesn't feel like an English kind of batsman. Even in his assertions of Britishness, his idiom betrays him: when asked about South African cricket, he recently said: "I've lost total interest." And in many ways he is the antithesis of a British stereotype. He is openly ambitious in a reticent country. He says what he thinks, in a culture famed for irony - i.e. for saying what you don't think. He makes comments that have easily-embarrassed Brits squirming. (Asked last year whether he had a girlfriend, he just smiled and said: "I don't struggle.") He is open about trying desperately hard in a culture where many think success should have a kind of aristocratic effortlessness. He has a curious bottom-handed technique on a county circuit whose folklore says that cross-bat shots will be found out by the moving ball.

And, as the perceptive Kevin Mitchell of The Observer first pointed out, Pietersen and the Zimbabwe-raised Duncan Fletcher seem to have brought something new to the English side. Unburdened by post-imperial guilt, they are perhaps more able to really enjoy dominating an opponent, revel in grinding his nose in it. "It was as if there were pride to be garnered," wrote Mitchell about the old days, "from losing graciously and for ever - to let the previously subjugated have their day." To Pietersen, noble defeat is an oxymoron. "We were taught [at school in Pietermaritzburg] to be aggressive, to do whatever it took... Winning means so much to me."

The man himself would swat away all the theorising and tell you he feels as English as the next bloke. He has the three lions tattooed on his bicep and praise for his adopted country on the tip of his tongue: "I love the country," he said last year. "I love the people. I love all the players. I love the management." And indeed, there have been plenty of Anglo-Africans, like Hick, who were as different as they were diffident. But if Pietersen's background didn't make his character, maybe it did allow him to fully express it.

All sorts of currents cut across these generalisations. What binds Pietersen to the culture of any country is less than what separates him from the mass. He is an exceptional man. At 19, he turned his back on home to carve out a life on the other side of the world. Not many youngsters, whatever their culture, do that. He went on his own, trusting that skill, confidence and ambition would bring riches and recognition a long way from home. That description leads to a final thought. Perhaps Pietersen is dead right. He is very like one kind of Englishman, but a kind long-since disappeared - the empire builder.

Paul Coupar is an assistant editor at The Wisden Cricketer