April 29, 2009

The shine's off KP

One of the most engrossing subplots of the Ashes summer will centre around whether Pietersen can go back to being golden again

The endless defeats, personal and collective. The unnervingly close encounters with infamy and mortality. The slowing strut. The thinning smile.

For some it has been a long time a-coming. For many, the schadenfreude runs deep, not least since the latest brush with humility has been taking place in South Africa. Granted, the bank balance is doing rather more than merely withstanding the credit crunch, but however brave a face he puts on it, being Kevin Pietersen, one imagines, isn't remotely as much fun as it was nine months ago. Who'd be a 6ft 5in poppy, eh?

Which is why, given that he was once a 6ft 7in poppy himself, the first person whose wisdom Pietersen should be seeking right now is Tony Greig. After all, they have so much in common: geographical and racial background, nomadic tendencies, uncommon talents and unbridled ambition - plus a laudable lack of self-consciousness that allows them to play an utterly convincing pantomime villain without a hint of fear or embarrassment. Need we add that neither was born or raised in England, yet both somehow clambered up the prejudicial ladder all the way to the captaincy of their adopted country, only for it to end in tears and recriminations? Thought not.

"Greig succeeds," attested Paul Weaver in the mid-1970s, "because he leaves any fear of self-doubt behind him when he steps on the cricket field. He is always positive and attacking. As a future England captain his boldness and lack of discretion may be viewed as more of a disadvantage." I wish I could have expressed it so eloquently when warning against Pietersen's appointment last summer. Like so many, I was content to prattle on high-and-mightily about his apparent selfishness.

All the same, this is the second time that my overriding emotion has been one of sympathy. The first came midway through Pietersen's first county season with Nottinghamshire, when I interviewed him over the phone. Not the best way to make someone's acquaintance or uncover their psyche, true, but immeasurably better than an email Q&A.

Predisposed as I was to dislike him - the least vicious thing you could say about his blaming the provincial quota system for forcing him to become an economic migrant was that it was disingenuous - I found myself bending over backwards to understand his perspective. The perspective of someone not only half my age but from a society vastly different to my own, not to say a great deal more inclined to challenge one's principles and better self. The resulting article drew a stinging response from a South African friend, a cricket-writing schoolteacher, accusing me of going soft, of letting Pietersen and his naked ambition off the hook. For a journalist, compassion can be a two-edged sword.

Since then I've probably over-compensated. I've been as hypocritical as most cricket-loving Poms: relishing the good, exaggerating the bad, condemning the ugly. Primarily because of the greater opportunities for regular work and the comparative riches on offer, no other nation has ever relied so heavily on non-domestic produce. Honorary Pomness comes relatively easy to the sporting imports who succeed - Greig, Allan Lamb, Devon Malcolm, Robin Smith - but woe betide those who struggle, disappoint, or worst of all, topple from their perch (Greig, Zola Budd, Graeme Hick, Greg Rusedski). When scapegoats are sought, motivation and allegiances are questioned, backgrounds seldom forgotten (Darren Pattinson was merely the latest in a lengthy line). Bar war and the Eurovision Song Contest, nothing brings out the nationalist, and the inner xenophobe, quite like international sport. And no sport taps into such feelings quite like cricket.

Will Pietersen begin to rein in some of those macho-kamikaze leanings and pursue the double- and triple-hundreds his talent demands and his fans expect? Will he become cagier in the dressing room? More circumspect in his public utterances? Less willing to accommodate hacks, broadcasters and sponsors?

LOSING THE ENGLAND CAPTAINCY was supposed to be Pietersen's comeuppance, but his IPL experiences have heaped gross insult on a severely injured ego. "Losing is good for me" ran the Guardian headline on Monday, albeit, crucially, sans quotation marks. He did not use those precise words in the wake of the Royal Challengers' fourth consecutive reversal, but he did say that the experience of defeat, in terms of his and the team's learning curve, had been "absolutely fantastic", even "incredible". In a good way, one assumes. Which is good.

The trouble, though, is that this has not been merely a fortnight's blip. Since the failure to convert ascendancy into victory in Chennai in November, Murphy's Law has prevailed with chilling efficiency - everything that could have gone wrong has done just that. For a bloke who appears to feel - with sound if not necessarily palatable reasons - that no matter what wonders he perpetrates, he has to prove himself every time he strides in to bat or faces a battery of microphones, that he can never relax, it will be intriguing and revealing to observe how Pietersen copes with the rollercoaster's sudden and alarming, if inevitable, descent.

His achievements, of course, are already immense. After wearing the three lions for 157 international matches, with 7947 runs at 47 and 23 centuries already in the bag and eagerly awaiting reinforcements, there can be no doubting that the most innovative, fearless and productive risk-taker among contemporary batsmen has made a spectacular mark. As with Virender Sehwag, averaging 50 in Tests with that sort of modus operandi beggars belief. His skill gives him licence to thrill, and does so as well and as consistently as anyone has ever done.

Garry Sobers' record of 5345 runs in his first 100 Test innings (Bradman was confined to 80) may be virtually out of reach, but plenty of others are not, most notably the greatest number of Test hundreds by a qualified Pom (another seven and he'll usurp Boycott, Cowdrey and Hammond). One key, all-embracing stat? Only five Test players with more than 10 three-figure scores to their credit have retired with an innings-per-century ratio better than 18% - Bradman, George Headley, Clyde Walcott, Herbert Sutcliffe and Everton Weekes; with 16 in 91 knocks, and notwithstanding a staunch refusal to temper those aggressive instincts, Pietersen currently stands at 17.58%. Among peers, only Ricky Ponting and Mohammad Yousuf stand taller.

Now, though, he is mired in comfortably his worst slump to date: five sub-20 scores in his last seven innings for England; one win in the last 11 Tests; one win and two ducks for the Royal Challengers. Sunday's 37 against Delhi Daredevils, his highest to that point in IPL 2, was nothing if not a microcosm of a desperate man: feet all over the shop, and all but yorked first ball; desperate to impose, desperate to hit himself into clarity of thought and expression, damned if he was going to do it any way but his own. That Daniel Vettori should bowl him was arguably more surprising than that he should perish attempting the shot he normally pulls off better than anyone - the switch-hit.

To divorce all this from the off-field context would, of course, be crass as well as blind. Nobody goes to work in a vacuum. Swirling around have been job-losses and face-losses, rows and indiscretions, even a growing sense of paranoia. Since he has been quite happy to bed down with the media, and reap the fruits, to complain of being betrayed by the press corps seems naïve at best. Why look inward if you can deflect blame?

THE MOST PRESSING QUESTION is whether all - or even any - of this has given Pietersen pause for thought. Will he begin to rein in some of those macho-kamikaze leanings and pursue the double- and triple-hundreds his talent demands and his fans expect? Will he become cagier in the dressing room? More circumspect in his public utterances? Less willing to accommodate hacks, broadcasters and sponsors? Less prone to leaving that neon heart on that day-glo sleeve? Or will he conclude that, having got this far doing it his way, all he needs is a lucky hundred and all will be hunky dory and glory again? Either way, whoever he listens to - and one trusts he heeds somebody within the game - may well have to deliver some harsh truths.

As Tony Lewis warranted at the time of his appointment as England captain in 1975, Greig is "of the breed who appear successful even when they are failing". Sound familiar? According to his biographer, the late David Lemmon, Greig also "lightened hearts … gave hope". Whether Pietersen can resume doing so remains to be seen; his quest for the resumption of normal service will almost certainly prove to be the most significant sub-plot of the English summer.

This may not go down terribly well in Preston, but I don't find it that difficult to envisage the Ashes being regained without a major contribution from Andrew Flintoff. Imagining the job being done without at least a couple of initiative-wresting explosions from the only Test cricketer ever to be mistaken for a peanut is a good deal harder.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton