Simple man, simple plan
Kevin Pietersen ambles into the room and immediately owns it. There is no cocky swagger or affected poise: he is simply very tall, very healthy, very sporty. And very relaxed. A bone-crushing handshake joins a wide-melon smile; the jeans and lumberjack shirt lend a laidback feel to the occasion. "Let's go for it, mate," he announces.
Is this really the England cricket captain? No blazer, no England emblem, no sponsor labels - not even a cameraman. His agent is nonplussed outside, and no fingernail-biting ECB officials are lurking. The occasion bears merit for all of the above - a promotional event for the Stanford 20/20 for 20 tournament - and his casual confidence reminds you that Pietersen will be doing this job his way, and his way only. And although he has only been in charge for a matter of weeks, he has already marked his scent in the dressing room. "They know what kind of skipper I am: no nonsense and no mediocrity," he says. "I want them to strive for perfection and for them to be the best they can possibly be, every single day. I give my lads freedom to play however they want, because I know how talented they are. 'Just go and chuck your talent out on a cricket field,' I tell 'em and they've done that brilliantly."
It almost feels like fate that Pietersen should be captain at this critical, shape-shifting time in English cricket. England's most ebullient cricketer taking centre-stage for cricket's greatest payday: Allen Stanford's uncompromisingly bold vision, or exercise, or lark - no one really seems sure which it is - gets underway on November 1. For Pietersen, however, it is nothing more than another opportunity, even if it is one that promises unprecedented riches. "It'll be a learning curve to see how the guys cope under pressure. Extreme amounts of pressure. In the next 12 months we have something called the Ashes, which is huge, so what we're going to find out [in Antigua] is how the guys cope under pressure, how their minds work and how we get through it. It's huge, but it's not as big as winning games for England: winning in India, going to the Caribbean to try and beat West Indies again, then obviously the Ashes next year."
Ah, yes. What of the Ashes then? Pietersen's rival and best mate, Shane Warne - "Top man, Warney. Top man, eh?" - last week fired a premature Ashes salvo, cackling at England's prematurely swaggering optimism. He has a point. England's victory over South Africa was, after all, a dead rubber.
No matter for KP, apparently. England may have the dusty outgrounds of India to contend with, and then West Indies in the new year, but Pietersen's England are gagging at the prospect of an Australia side lacking Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, and Warne. "In 2006-07 we went to Australia with no Simon Jones, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan. Steve Harmison, he was there... well, he wasn't there... so we had some really big players who missed that series, and it's one of those things which happens in sport. Those big players we had missing there - they've got even bigger players that they're missing. We're licking our lips at the moment, to be honest."
Refreshingly - or rather, thankfully - captaincy hasn't dampened Pietersen's honesty or straightforwardness. He is only marginally more coy than the whirlwind whose three hundreds in his native South Africa practically caused a riot. "I'm definitely a lot more grown up, in terms of my outlook on life." Nevertheless, for all the undoubted maturity - the bombast has lessened, his skunk haircut has been shorn - the more Australia is discussed, the more animated he becomes.
|Hansie Cronje was such a hero of mine too. I liked how he did, well, the positive stuff. Not all of what he did, obviously Kevin Pietersen on his birth-country's famous son|
"I'm in a fortunate position to be here, captaining England going into the Ashes next year - hopefully without any injuries. I see that as a privilege. I don't see it as a hindrance; it's an opportunity to go and do well and restore some happiness after what happened in Australia. I know with all the help of my team-mates, the management and the nation... we want the nation to get behind us. We want the nation right behind us next summer." He picks up his phone, gesturing with it persuasively, lowering his gaze. "It's one of our biggest goals to get the nation really, really fighting hard like it was in 2005. The media, everybody - we want them on side so we can go out and smash Australia now."
It is quite a statement for someone who witnessed the horrors of England's last trip to Australia. Having enjoyed success under Vaughan in his debut series in 2005, he then watched Andrew Flintoff surrender to Ricky Ponting's embittered, scorned, revenge-seeking side. Now it's Pietersen's turn, and he has no doubt who his two chief allies will be.
"I guess I've been pretty fortunate that I've had Flintoff come back, and play the way he has played with the head that he has on his shoulders now. It's superstar stuff. He's an absolute genius at the moment, which is very refreshing. And his old mucker Harmison, he too has got a real good head on him at the moment. He is very, very, very good at the moment. I am such a huge Steve Harmison fan."
His excitement briefly threatens to go overboard. Instead he pours a glass of water and shakes his head, as though weary of Harmison's many detractors since he climbed the rankings, then plummeted, then shot back this summer. "I face him in the nets and I hate it. He's quick, the ball bounces, and you know you're in with a competition, in for a fight. On numerous occasions Steve's nearly cleaned me up and it's not fun. I'm here to tell you.
"I think with a good head on his shoulders, like he has now, if he keeps this mental strength he could be top of the world rankings in a year. He should be. That's what I see in him."
Judging by Harmison's genuinely impressive comeback this summer - 60 Championship wickets, leading Durham to their first ever title - Pietersen could well be right. The new Harmison is the Harmison of old, though history has taught England to enjoy his form while they can. Can Pietersen take credit for Harmison's resurrection? In part, yes. "I think some of the best stuff I've heard in the last month is how the guys have spoken to me about my captaincy, how they like playing under me - the confidence I give them - and the fact they can go out there and just perform, entertain and be the best players they want to be. You can't ask more than that."
It is all too easy to forget just how inexperienced Pietersen is. He was no FEC - "Future England Captain" - certainly not in the way a young Mike Atherton was. Pietersen is entirely his own man. How couldn't he be, after calling Graeme Smith a muppet and scolding South Africa for their quota policy before legging it to England - not to mention baffling logic by engineering a new stroke? But his leadership differs from the bull-in-a-china-shop of Flintoff.
"I love being involved all the time. I like to be involved, I like to make people feel loved - make them feel they deserve to be there. That's how I want to be treated so that's how I treat others. I want them to know they'll be there [in the team] a while.
"I like how Steve Waugh conducted himself on the field, and against opposition. Hansie Cronje was such a hero of mine too. I liked how he did, well, the positive stuff. Not all of what he did, obviously. The way he carried himself, the fact he got up at 6am every morning to train, ran 5km before breakfast before anyone else. He led from the front in terms of his work ethic, which according to some people was absolutely incredible. What strength he had. And that's what I aspire to: train hard, and it breeds success. I'm a simple person really."
It became a trend that after a long spiel he would end it with that phrase: "I'm a simple person". The cynic questions whether this is a form of false modesty, but he needn't bother. Pietersen thinks only about winning, and to be the "best I can possibly be". There is a deep-rooted concern that the burden of captaincy might affect his swashbuckling brilliance at the crease; it has, in various formats of the game, affected his predecessors since the 1990s.
Pietersen's curled lip of distaste answers the question silently, before adding: "I'm not a captain when I go out to bat. I just bat. Whatever happens in my career as captain, they'll just blame the captaincy. If I do well they'll say, 'Oh, it's because he's captain'. I don't think that's right, but we shall see. I just want to do it and deal with it. I'm a simple person. I don't like to... I mean... I don't go too deep into things."
Of course, it is too early to judge his tenure. The champagne corks are still pinging off the ceiling, and everybody - players and media alike - has been instantly impressed. When he leads England out on November 1 with the hope his side will net nearly half-a-million each, it'll be four years almost to the day that he qualified for England, a fact he was surprised by.
"I do have to pinch myself sometimes to realise where I am. There's a lot that's happened in my career so far, but you know what, it's just about me enjoying myself. My success hasn't come about by a fluke or because I'm lucky, it's because I'm so, so driven; so clear in my thoughts about where I want to go and what I want to achieve. I train harder than anybody, I try harder than anybody and do as much as I can to improve on a daily basis. That's where I'm at."
Simple man, simple plan. It might just work, too.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo