March 20, 2008

KP and the missing fire

Pietersen's now gone ten innings and counting without so much as a half-century. Something fundamental seems to have altered within his mindset

Will we ever again see the cricketer that Pietersen once was? © Getty Images

The manner of Kevin Pietersen's most recent Test dismissal was harsh, but highly appropriate given the slough into which his form has sunk this winter. He hasn't, on the face of it, looked particularly out of touch. The cocksure mannerisms are still intact - the confident stride to the crease, the exaggeratedly stretched forward-defensive that can't help but come across as condescension.

But in Wellington last week Chris Martin's fingertips brushed an Ian Bell straight-drive into the non-striker's stumps, Pietersen found himself stranded two feet out of his crease, and sent on his way for 17 from 38 balls. When the chips are down, the luck vanishes with them - even for a cricketer of Pietersen's immense stature.

Nobody truly doubts that he'll be back. The universal consensus is that he'll turn the tap back on and drown some hapless opponent with a torrent of pent-up strokeplay. "He's going to take someone to the cleaners", is how the former England coach, David Lloyd, described it to Cricinfo this week. And yet, Pietersen's now gone ten innings and counting without so much as a half-century, which is one innings longer than he had previously had to wait between hundreds. Even if it is only a temporary blip, something fundamental seems to have altered within his mindset.

It's not just the runs that Pietersen's been lacking of late. Gone is the furious pace at which he once racked them up. "He's a class player, and a point-of-difference player," said John Bracewell, New Zealand's coach. "He scores at a rate that generates results, and every Test team needs one of those players." Not in this series, he hasn't. His strike-rate over the first two Tests has been a career-low of 40.85, below even that of Alastair Cook, who to the immense mirth of his team-mates registered his first six in two years of international cricket during the Wellington Test. Pietersen, by contrast, has a grand total of 94.

There's nothing visibly downbeat about his demeanour. He's still cock of the walk in net sessions, and an immensely assured public speaker when his turn comes to face the cameras. And even when he drops a clanger, such as the catch he shelled off Ross Taylor in the second Test, his body language does not retreat an inch. Pietersen exudes positive vibes in everything that he does. And yet, right now he is the central plank of a batting line-up that, even by the admission of its captain, Michael Vaughan, has been lacking in confidence. Something doesn't quite add up.

Even in that discussion, however, Pietersen is a man apart. Whenever England's batting woes are analysed, the spotlight falls on the diffidence of Ian Bell's demeanour, or the cracks in Andrew Strauss's temperament, or the eternal struggle that Paul Collingwood faces to justify his place. Pietersen is universally recognised as the class act in the line-up, and therefore a man aloof from such scrutiny. Except that there's no escaping the knock-on effect in a team game such as cricket. He may have been the kingpin during last year's Ashes, for instance, scoring 490 runs at 54.44 to cement his place among the world elite, but on his watch, England were still routed 0-5. The confidence that Pietersen is currently lacking is as likely to be in the men around him than in his own hyper-assured gameplan.

Take his extraordinary first-innings crawl in Hamilton. Pietersen racked up 42 from 131 balls, then had the temerity to suggest that it was one of his greatest innings. In some warped sense it might well have been, because the speed with which England collapsed in their second innings (in which Pietersen made just 6) demonstrated just how fragile the team's confidence really had been. Far from blazing from the word go and risking an early demise, Pietersen decided that the best policy was to rein himself in, and in his own words, "not do anything stupid".

And yet, Pietersen announced himself as a modern great precisely because his cricket veered towards the crazy. Who else could have silenced their hate-filled former countrymen with three centuries in six innings, as Pietersen managed on his return to South Africa in 2004-05? And who else could have seized the day in the 2005 Ashes quite as he did, with that lunatic-fringe 158 on the final day at The Oval? Never mind piecemeal 42s. That was a great innings.

That is not to say he's become a lesser player - class is, as they say, permanent. But right now he is denying himself the right to play the game on instinct, as he has done in every series (bar one) since the 2006-07 Ashes

England's fans have been crying out for a counterattack of that calibre this winter. But will we ever again see the cricketer that Pietersen once was? Not even the man himself is too sure anymore. "Maybe the naïvete of youth helped me back then," he told Cricinfo last summer. "I don't know if I could play a similar innings now. In the last Ashes series I was a lot more patient - I've been under the watchful eye of the press for too long, haven't I? I'd probably be more circumspect if I had to play that innings again."

"More mature" is how he likes to categorise himself these days. He is increasingly being trusted as a viable captaincy option. The wacky hairstyles are a dim and distant memory. The pop-star girlfriend is now the pop-star wife, following his marriage to Liberty X's Jessica Taylor in December. Fatherhood, one imagines, won't be far behind if his recent utterances are anything to go by. Pietersen is settling down, and that seems to be reflected in his cricket.

That is not to say he's become a lesser player as a result - class is, as they say, permanent. But right now he is denying himself the right to play the game on instinct, as shown by his performances in every series (bar one) since the 2006-07 Ashes. The exception came against a supine West Indian attack last summer. Everyone cashed in - nine centuries from six batsmen all told - but none more so than Pietersen, who at last felt released from the pressures of carrying his colleagues, and battered a career-best 226 at Headingley, England's highest Test innings for 18 years.

Often his new circumspect approach has been spot-on. In the first two Tests of the 2006-07 Ashes, for instance, in the most pressurised circumstances imaginable, Pietersen produced slow-burn innings of 92 and 158 - two performances that deserved better than the twin defeats those games resulted in. His second-innings hundred against India at Lord's last summer was another case in point - it would have won England the match but for rain. Though his relative caution came as a surprise to those who had witnessed, among other things, his reverse-swept six off Muttiah Muralitharan the previous year, his approach was justified in hindsight. With Zaheer Khan swinging the ball both ways at will, England lost the series when their batting let them down at Trent Bridge.

But lately Pietersen's struggles have seemed counter-productive, especially now that confidence among the batsmen has become such a hot topic. After all, if KP can't do it, what hope the rest of the line-up? A hard, flat deck at Napier offers him his best chance this winter to play his natural game, and if he comes off as everyone in the game knows he can, England could yet turn this tour around and win the series at the last gasp. Because, as everyone in the game knows, a good challenge puts fire in Pietersen's belly like nothing else.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jack on March 21, 2008, 21:10 GMT

    I'm an SA and a huge fan of KP! The hard road he had to follow to play test cricket would have daunted most, but not him. He has very tough qualities, specially mental. I think the general malaise affecting the England team is what's getting to him. He's become the kingpin of the side, and has now backed off from his normal aggressive approach because he feels the burden. Its true that he needs to be attacking to be successful, its part of his nature. However, he's become torn between his natural instinct and the burden he carries in a side seemingly bereft of spirit. If England comes right, so will he. I'm inclined to think Moores may not be the right man, because Vaughan certainly is. England also needs a decent attack. The sooner Freddie returns, the better. I guess its over for Harmison, and Jones, sadly, can't seem to recover. England has a good batting line-up, that is grossly underperforming. Fix that and things will come right. KP will thrive again if others make runs too.

  • sandeep on March 21, 2008, 18:03 GMT

    Class Act=Mark Waugh>Sachin Tendulkar>Kevin Pietersen. Cocksure=K.P>Steve Waugh>Matty Hayden. Rugged=Steve Waugh.

  • PATRICK on March 21, 2008, 15:27 GMT

    Biased as we South Africans are against Pietersen, we are not surprised that he is shown up as an ordinary cricketer in a very average international team. Players like Tendulkar and Sangakara with whom he is in some quarters compared to hasn't (according to my knowledge) written their biographies at the age of 26. Pietersen might have sensed that his socalled "class" would not last. His performances on the field of play are not matching his big mouth. He is an artificial Englishman trying to be more English than the English themselves. His batting technique is generally flawed and it is no surprise that it has already been exposed in a big way. He will soon slide into oblivion and we patriotic and loyal South Africans living in the great Mandela's land of birth will in future regard his book as the biggest joke in cricketing literature. We, as sufferers under apartheid despises beneficiaries of apartheid like Pietersen who turn their backs on a country trying to correct its mistakes

  • andy on March 21, 2008, 9:53 GMT

    Pieterson - good batsman? Sure he's scored a lot of runs and played some match changing innings but over time his poor technique (poorly balanced, plays across the line, dominant bottom hand) will find him out. I doubt he will continue to score heavily as I think he can't improve his technique and opposition teams know how to bottle him up. If he finishes his test career at an average of 40 it will only be because the selectors finally have the bottle to recognise he's not delivering and drop him. Nuff said.

  • swapnil on March 20, 2008, 18:20 GMT

    Hey Ari80, nobody is comparing KP with Sachin. There is no comparison with amt of cricket sachin has played and the amt of runs he scored. To compare KP with Sachin is utter childish. I just want to mention that KP is neither a legend nor a great. He is just one more batsmen with above average skills. And to brush up your cricket knowledge Sachin made his debut in 1989 and Ganguly, Dravid came in 1996. Well before that Sachin established himself as great. Dravid's batting flourished after 2000 before that he was just ordinary. And for your knowledge in India there is tremendous amount of public, media pressure when you go out to bat. This pressure is beyond your imagination because people used to switch off their TV sets when Sachin got out. I am sure KP never had such tremendous pressure of expectations. KP performed exceptionally well in Ashes 2005, but at that time whole ENG team was in brilliant form. 4 pronge pace battery, good set of openers and above all fiery Fredie Flintof.

  • Arindam on March 20, 2008, 17:23 GMT

    Where have we heard this before? For Indian cricket followers, this article is a hark back to many similar ones that used to be (and still are) written during the blips in a certain Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar's fantastic career. This is not to raise a debate over whether KP is as great a craftsman as Sachin, but only to point how the enormous pressure of being your country's premier batsman - particularly in a team that has little else to offer batting talent-wise - can take a toll on even the very best. If the Indian experience is anything to go by, then England is best served by KP's team mates sharing some of his burdens like Dravid, Ganguly and a bunch of other guys did during Sachin's later years - else English supporters will be left forever tormenting themselves by being ransom to merely the outcome of every KP innings, when the whole point of enjoying watching people like him bat is to appreciate the manner of their run-scoring as much as the amount of runs scored. Possibly more.

  • Simon on March 20, 2008, 14:43 GMT

    As an Oz I rate Pieterson as the best batsman (with Sangakarra) in modern day cricket. Like the former man, Ponting; he seems to be in an off season. He is closest to Gilchrist with the ability to change a game. This is not an English trait. He's probably getting average advice but the Pommie line-up with Cook, Bell, Pietierson and the rest should match any test line-up currently on display. Forget the coach, these guys should be predominant in delivering 350+ first innings on most occasions.

  • swapnil on March 20, 2008, 14:31 GMT

    I completely agree with Raghu. Peterson is a good player but to call him as a modern great is complete premature thing. No doubt he has a class but certainly not which can put him in all time greats. He had just one patch where he scored heavily but many batsmen in the world had scored at that pace for certain amount of time but failed to maintain consistency. Some examples are Greame Smith and Justin Kemp who made their debut very explosively but failed to maintain same form. Even Australian Mike Hussy is all down now a days. The classic batsmen is the one who can maintain consistency over at least 6-7 years like Lara, Tendulkar, Inzmam and Steve Waugh. I think Peterson is certainly not in that class or hold ability to be in that class. He is just one more skill with above average skills who can have dream run for one or two years. He is just a over hyped player, courtesy British media.

  • khalfan on March 20, 2008, 14:29 GMT

    KP!!he is a classic player i have ever seen in my life.He likes to attack in all forms of cricket.I dont know wat has happened to his form.In his last ten innings he had not scored a fifty yet.I know he is an important member of england team but I think england cricket board(ECB) should rest him for 1 or 2 months so that he could play and bring his form back.In 2005 he was in fantastic form and he was the player of 2005 for me.But 2007 and 2008 has not been pietersen years but i believe that he could bring his good form hereafter.His average also has been down ,in 2005 and 2006 his average was above 60 and now it is below 50 in both forms of cricket so i think he should look to bring his average again above 60 and his form also.

  • P Subramani on March 20, 2008, 14:11 GMT

    Pieterson is an excellent batsman. There can be no doubt about that. Unfortunately for him and England, he has hit an unlucky patch early in his career possibly burdened by expectations and the uncertainties in his mind after a a few failures. Failure is perhaps the greatest test for anyone used to success as he has been. I feel he should have a talk with a good sports psychologist to get over this phase. Besides, I have always believed in one having decent enough luck to succeed. In the past Pieterson has on occasions had the rub of the green. I am talking about the Ashes series and against India. It is not unlikely that that patch has dried up for the present. I have no doubt in my mind that he will get over this phase soon enough.It is important for him to play like he normally does once after which it will all be fine with him.

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