April 3, 2009

We need to talk about Kevin

There's something the matter with KP, and it's not really to do with runs

Kevin Pietersen has divided opinion from the moment he jacked in his lot with South Africa and made his great trek north in the summer of 2000 to launch his new life as a global sporting phenomenon. But right at this moment his staggering self-belief is flagging like never before. It's not so much the runs that are the issue, but the love. He's feeling unappreciated, and his discontent is corrosive.

Barely a day has gone by this week without Pietersen hitting the headlines for what he's said, or what he's done, or what he's said and done. One minute he's threatening to "do a Robinho" and flee an unhappy tour (a line that sounds sensational only when taken out of its original context), the next he's leaving the field with back spasms while bowling against a man he accused of hypochondria, Shivnarine Chanderpaul. It's a state of affairs that lends weight to the impression of a team in disarray. Pietersen is England's kingpin, and right now he's feeling skittled.

Some people will never understand what makes Pietersen tick, and his non-English origins are always on hand to provide his critics with ammunition, as the man himself admitted in the latest of a string of soul-baring interviews this week. "I think I'm going to have to live with that my whole career," he said. "I lived with that on Friday when we played a poor game of cricket and I got comments about South Africa. I deal with that on a daily basis and that's just the way it is, unfortunately."

And yet, less than 12 months have elapsed since Pietersen leant back on the sofa at the MCC museum and declared to the waiting press that he had "never felt so loved" by the English public, having just marked his first Test against his former countrymen with his 14th century. It was a telling choice of phrase from a man who, for all his awkwardness, seeks acceptance every bit as much as fame and fortune. Before that series was out, Pietersen had been named England captain, which he marked with a further century in a victorious maiden Test in charge, closely followed by four straight victories in a one-day campaign of greater intensity than England had shown for a decade.

The Peter Moores debacle brought a disastrous halt to that momentum, but to question Pietersen's commitment to England is both harsh and passé. He has never missed a single Test match since making his England debut in 2005. He's played in every single one of England's 15 Twenty20 internationals as well, and his last break from the ODI circuit came ahead of the World Cup in 2007, when he suffered a cracked rib while facing up to Glenn McGrath in Melbourne. His subsequent absence from England's next nine matches of the CB Series is the longest time away from the limelight he has had in four-and-a-half years as an international superstar.

Aside from Paul Collingwood, no one else in the squad comes close to matching that attendance record. Andrew Flintoff has played just 28 Tests in the same period, while the current captain, Andrew Strauss, was dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka in 2007-08, and had not played ODI cricket for two years until the start of the current campaign. Those who question Pietersen's commitment to England emphatically miss the point. He's scored nearly 8000 runs in eight countries including 23 centuries since his switch of allegiance, averaging 51 and 46 respectively in Tests and ODIs. He owes his adopted country nothing.

His country, on the other hand, owes him plenty. The cack-handed manner in which Pietersen was stripped of the England captaincy would irk even men with lesser tendencies towards ego-mania. One minute he was being asked how, in his valued opinion, the England team could be improved; the next he had offered his (admittedly drastic) solution, and found himself being drop-kicked out of office after his confidential comments had been leaked to the media.

After that episode, some feared Pietersen would flounce around the Caribbean like the spoiled brat he is perceived to be, or even decline to tour, and secure a full-fat contract with the IPL instead, but not a bit of it. He got straight back into training, scored a century in England's first warm-up game, in St Kitts, and but for an ill-judged stroke at Sabina Park that detracted from the determination that had preceded it, would have added a hundred in his first Test back in the ranks. Even when he did reach three figures in a superb final-morning onslaught in Trinidad, the fact that England fell one wicket short of squaring the series was used as further spurious proof that he's not a team player. It was Strauss who declined to declare before lunch that day, not the man in the middle.

Those who question Pietersen's commitment to England emphatically miss the point. He's scored nearly 8000 runs in eight countries including 23 centuries since his switch of allegiance, averaging 51 and 46 respectively in Tests and ODIs. He owes his adopted country nothing

There's no question that Pietersen is feeling the burn of touring life like never before. To a man, his England team-mates have spoken of his unstinting professionalism in the past 11 weeks, but the humiliation of his return to the ranks has melded with an England performance that has plumbed some spectacular depths. One of the benefits of Pietersen's promotion to the captaincy was that it provided an outlet for his excessive energies. Now, instead of being driven by responsibility to ever greater heights, he's being tipped by frustration ever closer to the edge.

Burn-out is a phrase that is used sparingly in Pietersen's presence, because as he himself recognised during the Oval Test last summer, he's got a finite window of opportunity as an elite athlete, and as a man in a rush to succeed, he is determined not to pass up a single opportunity - including the small matter of the IPL in a fortnight's time. His sojourn in South Africa is yet another reason why sympathy for his plight will be in short supply.

And yet, it should not be ignored how devastating the pressures can be on the key men in England's set-up. In recent years Graham Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick both succumbed to the pressures of being on duty 12 months a year. The common denominator is that they, like Pietersen, were undroppable in all forms of the game, and therefore did not get a break until the day they snapped.

Pietersen has said that never again will he go 11 weeks without seeing his wife, Jessica, and while it is easy to be cynical about celebrity love stories, it's not impossible that he really does miss her. The fact that Pietersen wanted to fly home to watch her take part in the finals of Dancing on Ice is the sort of cloying detail that we really could have done without, but as he once said, he is fortunate to have a wife who has been in the celebrity spotlight longer than he has, and therefore understands the pressures like no one else.

Pressure has been the life-blood of Pietersen's career, from his sensational first tour to South Africa in 2004-05, right through to the tour-salvaging performance he is surely plotting in St Lucia right now. Even when he endured a rare trough in Sri Lanka and New Zealand last winter, he still fronted up with the performance that won the series, a century in Napier last March, after his colleagues had stumbled to 4 for 3. But you have to wonder what his wife's advice will be when he does finally get home. It's been a draining year already, but the contests that matter are still to come.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ron on April 5, 2009, 15:36 GMT

    There is little doubt that Mr Pietersen is a complex individual,however his loyalty & commitment to England,is second to none.Without him in the line-up,we would sink even lower in the Test Match Table. Sadly,it was a mistake to appoint Moores as coach,& KP did little wrong whilst he was in charge,so why Sack Him? The ECB knew about his waywardness prior to his appointment,yet considered him the best man for the job,to which I totally agree. Winning the Ashes is obviously the prime object for England,but we stand no chance whatsoever,unless KP is re-instated,with dare I say it Andy Flower as Coach. Today's cricketers seem to have no respite from the rigors of Test,1 Day & now 20-20 Matches & even the likes of Sir Jack Hobbs,might have found his cool gentlemanly manner,sorely tried in such circumstances! Ron Gray

  • D N on April 5, 2009, 10:15 GMT

    No one is bigger than the team. Tendulkar has proved that beyond doubt. KP is behaving like a spolit brat. This author has taken a tone of justifying absurd behaviour. The author is absurd too. In fact, I am sorry that KP is playing for Bangalore, where I come from and let me use this column to state that we expect him to behave like Dravid does. Mallya has made a big mistake making him a captain. Mallya will realise that soon. Lastly, England is better off without KP. Sometimes, as head of a project team, I have dropped star performers as they would not get along in a team and would drag down team performance. Cricket is a game I love and KP does not belong on a cricket field.

  • usman on April 5, 2009, 1:32 GMT

    Well written piece. I am really disappointed how ECB handled this fiasco. I feel sorry to realize that my native country (pakistan) and my resident country (England) both are suffering from Captains issues. I assume this is one of the reason of in-consistencies. The look of English team was totally different under him and although Strauss trying his best to prove him as a captain , he is not a leader.

  • Dil on April 4, 2009, 23:25 GMT

    After England levelled the test series against India in Mumbai in March 2006 I was at the front of a very busy bar at the Taj Hotel nightclub when I got violently shoved aside from behind by Pietersen demanding to be served. The acid comments he made about his real homeland, with its recent struggles, show that he is completely self centered, egotistical, and without any sense of perspective or appreciation of the needs of others. His 3 lions tattoo shows only that he trying too hard to prove something probably as much to himself as anyone else. He would gain acceptance much quicker and far greater respect from those around him he apologised for the bad mouthing of his country and went about his business as a professional sportsman doing the best for any team that he plays for while keeping his mouth shut and letting his immense talent do the talking for him. Unfortunately his sense of self importance and lack of humility and etiquette outweighs even that considerable talent.

  • Rome on April 4, 2009, 16:17 GMT

    Mr. Petersen should shut up and let his skills do the talking. What has he done so far in his cricketing career as other players in the same time frame? When he performs consistently as a Ponting or a Tendulkar and wins games for his country, then we might be more accepting of his childishness. And why has no one pick up and commented on his batting technique of having a leg stump stance and just before the bowler delivers, moves and blocks the stumps with his legs, almost as if he had an off stump stance in the first place. Maybe he is just another Graham Hick!

  • Aravind on April 4, 2009, 8:31 GMT

    Spot on Andrew. Once branded a traitor, there is no coming back. Even the most grounded person on earth would look egoistic. Being massively talented is in fact a curse in disguise and denies him of even the minimum sympathy he deserves, not as a proud and always right sportsman but as a human being with very strong emotion and passion for the game.

  • Minhaj on April 4, 2009, 3:11 GMT

    England Cricket Board should be lucky enough to get a player as high caliber as Kevin Pietersen. Kevin Pietersen is one of the top rated players at present and his tremendous performance against several competitive teams proves that he is not at all like any other ordinary players. England knows that they fail to produce competitive players like the Australians so they should not waste golden opportunities when they get players like Kevin Pietersen. He has proved over the last few years that he is fully committed towards his team. I wish him all the luck in future.

  • Jack on April 4, 2009, 0:21 GMT

    Miller handled this well, but one thing is absent. We need a really stinging condemnation of members of the ECB, Morris in particular. The way Englands key performer was handled was disgusting! That a nonentity like Morris, based on his cronyism with mediocrity Moores, can torpedo the whole England team is mindboggling. But thats whats happened. There is no way Andrew Strauss, gentleman and nice guy that he is, can begin to provide the innovation, mongrel and sheer will to win that KP can. Under KP I have zero doubt England would win the Ashes. Under Andrew, its not going to happen. I also have criticism of Fred, who has come to regard himself as the golden boy of England cricket, and who has not enjoyed being supplanted by KP. I believe there is fire where there is smoke, and it appears that Fred did indeed do a hatchet job on KP when his opinion was canvassed. Fred, a man who is perpetually injured or perpetually intoxicated, needs a kick up the backside, jealousy of KP is not on!

  • Simon on April 3, 2009, 19:11 GMT

    If Kevin Pietersen's sense of entitlement stopped at appreciation I don't think he'd be in too much trouble with the English cricketing public. But the fact is that he is the epitome of modern man which means that appreciation is far too low an aspiration, and that what he really expects is adulation.

    And he gets it from large numbers of his own generation, and younger, who have been brought up in the same self-regarding age. But things have not always been like this, and most of us of more advanced years have been brought up to regard such egotistical attitudes as unwelcome hangovers from an incomplete childhood, not as the rather appealing emotional displays of a properly developed adult.

    It'll seem counter-intuitive, and at the age of 28 maybe he's too set in his ways to accept it, but the only way he will receive the adulation he craves is for it to become quite clear he has accepted that it is for others to give, not for him to demand.

  • craig on April 3, 2009, 16:43 GMT

    KP is bored not surprising english cricket is boring,clearly the man thrives with responsiability and under pressure ,England was a different team during KPs tenure as captain,the ECB got to bring english cricket in line with world trends and KP is the man to do it .Strauss captainancy does not inspire the man, come home KP,alls well,South Arica awaits you with open arms,just imagine the Proteas with KP in the line up.

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