A tale of two English icons
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."
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."
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.