June 8, 2012

Let's talk about Kevin

Pietersen's has been among the most sparkling yet controversial stories of all

There is not much to do at Edgbaston except talk more cricket. The amount of rain is staggering, apparently it is the thing Britain is most recognised for abroad. Not Churchill or Shakespeare; Buckingham Palace or Her Majesty; not Westminster, Wembley or any of the Cathedrals and not even fish or chips. This land is best known for rain.

Cricketers know rain well, those out of nick pray for it. Rain brings release from expectation, albeit temporarily, and allows the mind to wander irresponsibly through card games, iPods, Xbox (I'm told) and endless reruns of matches past. Today Fred Flintoff and Steve Harmison have been causing havoc in Barbados and Marcus Trescothick knocked off the winning runs. That series was back in 2004 under Michael Vaughan's savvy leadership and became the foundation upon which the monumental Ashes win of 2005 was built.

Two thousand and five, the summer when Kevin Pietersen first caught our eye. It was the haircut - skunk and streaked. He had joined Hampshire from Nottinghamshire, a glamorous move at the time, which ended unsatisfactorily. He loved the lights of London too much and so Surrey, where he plays now, may be the last resting place. Back at the Rose Bowl, in one of the few county matches he played for Hampshire, a selector saw him make an efficient 20-odd on a tricky pitch. This little acorn, in the company of three breathtaking one-day hundreds for England in South Africa the winter previous, was enough to cull Graeme Thorpe's Test career and launch one of the most sparkling and yet controversial stories of them all.

Goodness, these South Africans! Think back for a minute: Tony Greig was hardly the retiring type; Allan Lamb had a capacity for mischief and frolic like few others; Robin Smith was a crackerjack fellow, so popular that there simply weren't enough hours in the day. And Pietersen is off the chart really. Barely a moment goes by without, well, a Pietersen moment, and thus he has been top of the pops these past 48 rain-filled hours.

Sure, he says some stuff that is too self-fulfilling for its own good, but for a long while he travelled on rocky ground, a man bent on redemption in another man's land. His achievements are every bit as remarkable as those of Greig before him - once "ordinary" in the shirts of Eastern Province and Natal respectively, then monumental in the three lions of their adopted land. Pietersen hates the "adopted" thing by the way, he just wants to be plain old English.

The trouble, KP, is that there is nothing plain about you, and not much that is English. Not since Denis Compton has an English batsman played with such carefree spirit and jaw-dropping panache. David Gower had the range and Ian Botham the bravado but even they were not quite so original. And you are up there with Geoffrey Boycott when it comes to a stir.

All of which is box office and worth a mint to both Pietersen and his employers. As many as 600,000 follow him on Twitter; that is a big number. The vast majority are fans but the few who are not really niggle, and he hates that too. There is the problem with social media: as easily your enemy as it is your friend.

Quite why he has pulled out of all limited-overs cricket is a mystery. Clearly he has had a bellyful of the 50-over game and hates the time away from his wife and young son. But it is still a big call, one with which the ECB could not get to grips. The timing alone is bizarre. Probably he made some demands on a pick-and-choose basis and was told to lump it. They need a mediator, these two opposites who don't attract. Or perhaps the damage is done. It did seem a bit daft to fine him three grand for an uncomplimentary tweet about Nick Knight's work on television, and it seems even dafter to be just 31 years of age and packing in the game that draws you the biggest audience. What a far cry from heady 2005.

And it is no good bleating about the IPL sucking his oxygen from our grasp. If someone offered any of us a couple of million dollars (because that is about what it adds up to, endorsements and all) for six weeks in India, we would bite their hand off. There was always one rule for one and another for the others - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. As hard as we champion the team ethic, it is individuals who make the team.

Pietersen's "retirement" is not based on revenge for the loss of the England captaincy or retaliation for the tweet fine, it is based on overkill and disaffection. This is only the beginning. The quicker everyone who runs the game realises that the IPL heist is here to stay, the better. Give it space and give those who play it respect. Work with it, not against it. Pietersen may not have used the charm offensive when dealing with the ECB, and he surely owes English cricket more than he cares to acknowledge, but there has to be another way, there has to be. Otherwise it is a terrible waste. And it is still raining in Birmingham.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK