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A tale of two English icons

One is seen as a man of the people, the other as a man for himself. What is perception and what reality?

Andrew Miller

January 25, 2010

Comments: 35 | Text size: A | A

The injured Kevin Pietersen managed to dodge the rain at Edgbaston, England v Australia, 3rd Test, Edgbaston, 1st day, July 30, 2009
KP: Confident, ambitious, devoted to excellence, insular © PA Sport
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Players/Officials: Andrew Flintoff | Kevin Pietersen
Teams: England

At The Oval last August a national treasure stepped down from Test cricket. At Centurion in November a mistrusted maverick returned to the fold. In terms of stature, star quality and even IPL salaries Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen are peas in a pod - a pair of box-office personalities in an otherwise humdrum England dressing room. In every other respect the two men remain polar opposites, not least in the eyes of the British public.

Objectively speaking there should not really be a contest as to which of the pair is more deserving of adulation. Flintoff's credentials as a world-class allrounder are undermined by his ordinary statistics; moreover he went four years from 2005 without either scoring a century or taking five wickets.

Pietersen, on the other hand, has made 16 hundreds in 58 Tests and, according to his best man and former England team-mate Darren Gough, is a shoo-in to become England's leading run-scorer in Test cricket. "When Freddie looks back, he will say he's underachieved in a lot of ways," says Gough. "Whereas Kev wants to fulfill his potential totally."

Yet Pietersen's devotion to excellence is the very same attribute that alienates him from a fickle British public. From the days of Henry Cooper through to Eddie the Eagle and Frank Bruno, plucky and personable underdogs have always trumped sportsmen with genuine claims to greatness.

"It is peculiar how Pietersen is portrayed," says a media colleague who has worked with him at close quarters. "He claims not to read the papers but that is definitely not the case. He takes criticism very personally and he is certainly not happy about it. I suspect the South African link will never allow him to be the Freddie-esque man of the people he so craves to be."

According to Paul Burnham, founder of the Flintoff-worshipping Barmy Army, Pietersen's persona is a direct challenge, for better or worse, to everything that British sports fans hold dear. "At the moment we are what we are as a culture. Personally I love it and wouldn't want to change it, even though it isn't what you want if you want to win all the time," he says. "Freddie is old school and England's fans can relate to that, whereas Pietersen is probably the most misunderstood cricketer there is. He's got a really friendly personality but for some reason people don't like his body language. He exudes confidence but it comes across as arrogance."

"I think Fred comes across exactly the same as me," says Gough. "He's a bit of a joker who likes a drink and he plays his cricket in the right spirit. KP is slightly different. He'd take a wine bar over a pub any day, and that's not a knock at him. He just enjoys that buzz and that edge about being a top-class sportsman. But because he wasn't brought up in this country he still doesn't quite understand how things work and how people look upon celebrities. It can be a difficult place if you make it a difficult place."

Freddie is old school and England's fans can relate to that, whereas Pietersen is probably the most misunderstood cricketer there is. He's got a really friendly personality but for some reason people don't like his body language. He exudes confidence but it comes across as arrogance Paul Burnham, founder of the Barmy Army

Pietersen has not made life easy for himself since transferring his allegiance to England. He arrived in the country with a reputation for brashness and cultivated that image with dressing-room spats and crazy hairstyles - antics that did not endear him to English cricket's essentially conservative fan base.

In 2008 he appeared finally to have cracked it. A brilliant and wildly acclaimed hundred against his former compatriots at Lord's led to him declaring that he had never felt "so loved", and before the series was out he had been appointed England captain. Then came the falling out with Peter Moores.

"I think he was badly scalded by what happened last winter," says the source. "He is considerably more guarded with the media than he used to be and I get the impression he feels people are out to get him."

However Flintoff, too, has had moments in his career when media attention has cast him in an unfavourable light - and pound for pound his catalogue of misdemeanours deserves far greater censure than anything the relentlessly professional Pietersen has come up with. KP would never turn up drunk at practice while leading his country on a tour of Australia, for instance; and as for the Moores debacle, at least it can be argued that he was acting in what he thought were the team's best interests.

Perversely, though, the harder Pietersen tries to ingratiate himself, the more the suspicions of his motives grow, whereas the more Flintoff strays from the straight and narrow, the more his stock appears to rise. "Part of the attraction is that Fred does make mistakes, like we all do," says his friend and spokesman Myles Hodgson. "But generally he doesn't make many excuses for them either. He holds his hand up and says, 'I was a bum then.'"

That is an aspect of Britishness that Pietersen simply "doesn't get". For him an apology is a sign of weakness and, as such, to be avoided at all costs. His refusal to acknowledge the crass error of judgment that led to his dismissal in the opening Ashes Test in Cardiff this summer was a case in point.

"He was absolutely furious about the way he was singled out for criticism for that shot," says one English journalist. "Basically I think he is very insecure and wants to be loved but has not worked out how to achieve that. For some reason he doesn't quite fit into the England dressing room. I'm not sure he does 'banter' that well."

Geraint Jones, Pietersen's fellow 2005 Ashes winner, concurs. "As a team-mate you see KP on the field but other than that you don't really see him around very much," he says. "He'll go out for dinner with the guys but after that he keeps to himself a bit while Fred tends to run into people he knows and is happy to spend a bit of time with them.

"KP is not actually someone who wants to be in the public eye that much. Yes, he's a bit flash and he likes his fast cars but that's what makes him tick. He's just a very focused person and very insular and people tend to form their opinion of what he is like by watching him play cricket. That's his job, after all."

Andrew Flintoff and wife Rachael walk through the streets, London, August 24, 2009
Freddie: friendly, loyal, fallible © AFP

It is also, crucially, all the public has ever seen. Whereas Flintoff made his debut as an overweight and unready 20-year-old, way back in 1998, and slowly developed into the talismanic figure around whom the 2005 Ashes side was built, Pietersen arrived in the side with no hinterland and seemingly no fear either. As the plot of that summer's epic contest developed, so the mystery of his motivation began to tell against him.

"Everyone wants to be loved and everyone would love to have the relationship with the fans that Flintoff does, but I think Kev knows that that's just not going to happen," says Jones. "He thinks quite hard about saying the right thing but perhaps people see him trying too hard to be nice, whereas it all comes naturally to Fred, who is just a more relaxed character."

Flintoff remains close to two former schoolboy team-mates Paddy McKeown and Mark Chilton and is still in touch with old friends from Preston; he is known for his loyalty. Pietersen, on the other hand, does not have any such long-standing and intimate friendships, and according to Gough, even his choice of wife, the pop star Jessica Taylor, whom he married in 2007, arouses suspicion among the public.

"Freddie married a girl [Rachael Wools] who wasn't a celebrity, while KP married a celebrity at an occasion with other celebrities, and that's the difference," says Gough. "One person embraces the celebrity lifestyle while the other puts an image across that he doesn't like it."

In the months since Test retirement Flintoff's stated distaste for celebrity has been tested by innumerable public appearances, as he attempts to forge a life after cricket. Nothing, however, has dented his place in England's affections, not even his rejection of an ECB central contract, which is precisely the sort of move that Pietersen would be castigated for.

Ultimately it seems there is only one sure-fire route to acceptance and that is for Pietersen to stick belligerently to his guns and accept the brickbats as a trade-off for his talent.

"He's a terrific guy and I'd want him on my side in all situations but he's just not the kind of lion-hearted character that people love," says Gough. "He's just not English through and through."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. This article first appeared in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here.

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Posted by   on (January 27, 2010, 16:20 GMT)

hats the problem people? I'am definitely behind KP, contary to what some believe I don't think KP is a natural talent, technically I don't think he's a brilliant batsmen either but what he is, is extremly ambitous and determined. He is without doubt the most driven player in that England team... then you get guys like Ian Bell technically a better batsman than Kapes but what the hell has he achieved? Medicority ... so is that really the english people wan't? How on earth do we expect to beat teams like aus,ind,sa. Those teams will alway

Posted by catweazle63 on (January 27, 2010, 14:03 GMT)

It seems unfair to me that Flintoff is portrayed as a lovable, laddish, man of the people, but in reality is a lot more shrewd and calculating than you think and enjoys the limelight on him. Nothing wrong with that but let's be realistic, when it was about Freddie, the rest of the team didn't get a look in with some elements of the press and fans.

Pietersen on the other hand, comes across as arrogant, cocky, a loner, non team player, etc, but is actually a lot nicer than he is portrayed but is more reserved. He wants to do the best he can and puts the time and effort in but also wants to feel part of a team doing the same. Yes he is confident about his abilities but there is nothing wrong with that. That's why england are getting more exciting at the moment because they have a crop of young players (Broad, Swann, Anderson) who have a bit of swagger about them and who are not cowed by other teams or by there only being one 'star' in the team.

Posted by crikkfan on (January 26, 2010, 16:17 GMT)

I think we need to accept KP and Freddie for what they are and that will make us enjoy them more - particularly for KP and Freddie is easily enjoyable! I admire KP for his professionalism and Freddie for his flair and talent.

Posted by King_Viv on (January 26, 2010, 9:33 GMT)

KP lost a lot of respect when he first burst onto the scene and slagged off his homeland. Sure the quota system is far from ideal but reversing years of apartheid and inequality was never going to be easy and for a white South African to make comments about reverse racial equality was too much for some. We understand everyone must act in their own interests and moving to England was the best for him (and for England) but the comments he made about the country that nurtured him left a bitter taste in my mouth. Without the quota system, Duminy and Amla may never have emerged. Ever since he has tried to act more English than the English with the tattoes and various "I love playing for MY COUNTRY" comments. Nevertheless, he is a special talent and I hope he is able to perform at the highest level for years to come. From my perspective, Freddie was a great cricketer but unfortunately injury prone so never realised his potential

Posted by Peekay2407 on (January 26, 2010, 6:57 GMT)

According to me, there is a big difference btw KP and Freddy. KP is aggressive cricketer whereas Freddy is calm and passionate cricketer. He does his job without much show of aggression. I had an opportunity to see him in Dubai Bab Al Shams Resort holidaying with his family. I am extremely pleased to see Freddy walking around with his kids and he readily agreed to a photo click with me. In fact, he looked around to find someone take snap. Freddy is a great human being and I love him so much. No matter what milestones one achieves in cricket world - cricketers like Freddy are so humble with no prejudice or hatred towards anyone. Freddy had his moment of success in English cricket and we all love him. I am A LOYAL FREDDY FAN AND GOD BLESS HIM AND HIS FAMILY.

Posted by Sir-Collingwood on (January 26, 2010, 2:05 GMT)

I can't say much about Flintoff since he actually does something when there is something needed (like the boyfriend/girlfriend who pulls up a miraculous recovery every time they royally screw up), whilst my loathing for KP grows with every single bad innings he blames on either something stupid, or refuses to acknowledge a truly boneheaded move and carries on like nothing has happened. Soon he will blame it on someone else, and when that day comes, I pray that he will be far, far away from the English side.

Let the players like Swann, Anderson, Strauss and Collingwood do their jobs and that is to win matches -- KP's next gig ought to be I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (USA version)...

Posted by Manush on (January 26, 2010, 0:37 GMT)

The two are definitely towering and inspiring personalities, while one is lingering with his memorable contributions,the other continues to occupy centre space in English Cricket. A one ordinary performance in the just concluded series, should not be taken seriously. Without KP's contribution England is just ordinary and will only lose. Even the one victory against SA, his innings was important. KP should learn to control emotions and avoid being over aggressive. He is sure to be on top of the world.

Posted by BacupCCU17 on (January 25, 2010, 23:31 GMT)

I don't understand the mentality of some people, why do we criticize the best performers and completely overate mediocre ones?! KP has averaged the best part of 50 so far in his career making him the player with the highest test (and odi) ave in the England team by a good amount! ... so whats the problem people? I'am definitely behind KP, contary to what some believe I don't think KP is a natural talent, technically I don't think he's a brilliant batsmen either but what he is, is extremly ambitous and determined. He is without doubt the most driven player in that England team... then you get guys like Ian Bell technically a better batsman than Kapes but what the hell has he achieved? Medicority ... so is that really the english people wan't? How on earth do we expect to beat teams like aus,ind,sa. Those teams will always be better than England unless we change the way we view our cricketers. C'mon KP 10,000 test runs @50 and you'll be the one of best players in English history!

Posted by Kassto on (January 25, 2010, 23:10 GMT)

Good piece, Andrew. My sympathies are definitely with KP, who's a complete professional. I think Fred loves the celebrity lifestyle more, underneath all that ordinary bloke stuff, and he's been a serious underachiever as a cricketer.

Posted by Subra on (January 25, 2010, 22:38 GMT)

To me Flintoff stands miles ahead and epitomised by his gesture to Brett Lee after England had won. The game was a keenly contested one, one team had to win, but it was his gracious act that will forever cast him as a true sportsman - a cricketer in the broadest definition of the term. Siva from Sinfapore

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Andrew Miller Andrew Miller was saved from a life of drudgery in the City when his car caught fire on the way to an interview. He took this as a sign and fled to Pakistan where he witnessed England's historic victory in the twilight at Karachi (or thought he did, at any rate - it was too dark to tell). He then joined Wisden Online in 2001, and soon graduated from put-upon photocopier to a writer with a penchant for comment and cricket on the subcontinent. In addition to Pakistan, he has covered England tours in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007

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