November 19, 2013

A touch of genius

As Kevin Pietersen prepares for his 100th Test, he is close to being regarded as a truly great cricketer, England's first since Ian Botham

It was not inconceivable but it did seem unlikely that Kevin Pietersen would play 100 Test matches for England. That he does so on Thursday says much about his fabulous ability and something more about a ruthlessness in him that is not always apparent.

He is close to being regarded as a truly great cricketer, England's first since Ian Botham, because of a unique talent that has been relentlessly pursued. For all the paradoxes that make the man, Pietersen's batting brooks little argument. He has brought immense joy and single-handedly changed the course of many a Test match. Few in the history of the game can claim such influence.

Yes, he has moved in mysterious ways, often betraying both insecurity and vulnerability. He has taken unpopular decisions - "It's not easy being me," he once said - the consequences of which have been carried by others as much as by Pietersen himself. He admits to mistakes and to moments he might revise but even the contrition cannot disguise the fact that most of his actions are carefully enough conceived.

Flippantly, one might say that there have been three ages of KP - the skunk, the sulk, and the salvation - and add that brilliance has sat within them all. The edition we see today is close to the finished article. He has mellowed and, though self-absorption lingers (how can it not if excellence is to be achieved?), his generous references to the current England team are from the heart and have a relevance he may not previously have appreciated.

He is 33 years of age, a productive time for batsmen. The eyes are still sharp, the brain is calm. The impatience seems settled and the longing for acceptance resolved. Not so long ago an outsider, he is reintegrated. Champions are born with their gifts but otherwise are self-made. It's a process that takes courage, a feature of his make-up that is often ignored. And it is a risky business, with an attitude and reputation permanently on the line.

Initially he went out on his own, listening only to himself while travelling the rocky ground of adoption from one country to another. Marriage and a son have helped him see the other side. As has his present captain, Alastair Cook. Pietersen needed a "kitchen cabinet" more than he knew and it is serving him well. His work ethic has never been an issue, much blood and sweat has been shed and it shows in the record books.

A casualty of Pietersen's one unforgiveable misjudgement was the popular former captain Andrew Strauss. The defamatory texts Pietersen fired off to the South African team a year and a bit ago were more than just daft, they were provocative and threatening. A weary Strauss could take no more and Pietersen was left out of the England side for the final match of the series, which was lost. Days later Strauss retired from the game.

Few cricketers have genius in them. A couple are noted here and others include Garry Sobers and Viv Richards. Pietersen may well be one of them

The new captain, Cook, resolved to unravel the Pietersen problem, seeing the magic in the batsman as an essential advantage and the individualism in the man as something to point in the right direction. First Cook convinced the dressing room that they were not angels themselves and then he went to work on the problem. The theme of his approach was: what do you want Kev, greatness or great wealth? Doubtless he added that both were at his fingertips.

Pietersen saw straight, admitted fault, toed the line and turned the corner. He holds Cook in high esteem, an opinion that is well deserved. The strong characters in this England team require the touch of a surgeon. Cook has it, even if Shane Warne hammers on about other arguable flaws. But this is not Cook's story of 100 Tests - a mark that is a couple of matches away.

This is the story of a Pietermaritzburg boy who raged against the machine in the land of his birth. He blamed the quota system for his lack of exposure in the KwaZulu-Natal team and he had a point. After a dull season in the Birmingham Leagues, where the accents and pitches were equally indistinguishable, Clive Rice invited him to Nottinghamshire. The positive reply came by return post. Trent Bridge provided a fine theatre and the showman began to attract interest from important people as much for the substance in the performances as the style with which they were played.

He is of an Afrikaans father, an English mother and a disciplined upbringing that he remembers fondly. After a four-year period of qualification, the English mother provided the opening he craved and a new life began. England chose him for 50-over cricket first and his batting soared. The South African crowds hated the apparent haughtiness as he flayed their bowlers but by the third hundred, in the 2004 one-day series, they gave in and began to cheer the wonder of it all.

His first Test was against the Australians and began the Ashes of 2005. There is a nice symmetry in that his 100th does the same on the other side of the world eight years later. A hundred Tests in a little more than eight years tells you something important about the modern game. There is too much of it and players cannot possibly excel every time they take guard. Having said that, Pietersen's game of risk has an average of more than 48 per Test innings.

It was immediately obvious that the world was changing in that first game at Lord's when he hit Glenn McGrath over mid-off and into the Pavilion, before swatting Warne over midwicket into the Grandstand. England's batsmen had not been so brave or brash since their names were Botham or Gower. It is to Botham that he has sometimes turned for guidance, and having moved from Nottinghamshire to Hampshire, he found things in common with Warne too. At the after-show parties, he stood close by Andrew Flintoff.

The England captaincy changed things. He showed statesmanlike qualities in India after the Mumbai bombings and fuelled by the promotion and its trappings, went after the coach, Peter Moores. This became a crusade and cost him the job not long after he had received it. Moores was of county stock, a decent man of method and discipline to bring something structured from the young.

Pietersen was more for freewheeling and expression. He went behind backs and left the suspicion that he had diminished the entitlement granted by his adopted country. Nonsense. He wanted the right man in the job but those in power who could have helped him achieve it ran for cover. The truth is that soon after appointing Pietersen, the ECB regretted it and hung him out to dry.

Not until the tour of Australia three years ago did he emerge from the shadow. Then he played with an old abandon, completing a memorable double-hundred in Adelaide, alongside other worthy contributions. Never, though, can he have constructed a more meaningful and outrageously skilful innings than the one at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai late last year. England were a game down, two wickets down and 259 behind when he came to the crease on an extravagantly spinning pitch. When he left it, 233 balls later, England were 55 in front and he had made 186 runs of such flamboyance and magnificence that even the Indians found warmth in their appreciation. From that day - and from the captain's batting too, one should add - came England's series win, a triumph so against the odds that bets were almost off. Even there.

Few cricketers have genius in them. A couple are noted here and others include Garry Sobers and Viv Richards. Pietersen may well be one of them. He performs deeds that others dream of, turns matches, annihilates opponents and thrills audiences. He is the fastest batsman, in terms of days, to 4000, 5000 and 7000 runs. Now, in all international cricket he has scored more runs than any other England player. His pride - amazement perhaps - in this achievement is evident. It has come from hard graft and forensic attention to detail. The flair is not by chance, it is by design, but an entertainer's arsenal is filled with contradiction. For the highs there have been lows; alongside the gasps of admiration there have been sighs of despair. The most remarkable thing about the weight of runs is the range of the ambition.

Happy in love and happy in life, Pietersen can walk to the middle at the Gabba and know that he has done himself justice. The crowd will fill their seats and the Australian cricketers will be aware of a great danger. His family will have flown from South Africa and England to salute the man they know and love. His game is working well; that ambition is undiluted. If he does not reward their faith in this match - and it will be a surprise if not - he will do so soon. The purpose is renewed, another chapter is to come.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Muhammad atif on November 23, 2013, 5:47 GMT

    Sachin and kallis are two legends of modern day cricket so as sangakara.check his record then say about KP.he is good batsman not great.even amla is better than KP.

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2013, 23:35 GMT

    AC Cook is indeed a marvellous cricketer, and given his age will probably go on to achieve far greater numbers and feats for Eng (a lot like Sachin did). But who will you remember more " KP at the Oval 05, KP in India, KP in Headingly, KP in Mumbai, KP at Adelaide". Just like Viv Richards back in the day KP has the ability to make you remember what happened on a certain day. Cook's style of play, his patience, his nature will more often than not ensure runs. However the KP style of brash, over the top attacking cricket very rarely gives longevity or consistency in test cricket. His ability to play 100 tests, score 23 odd hundreds and average just under 50 given his style of play is definitely once in a generation thing.

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2013, 21:59 GMT

    I agree with Samroy - KP can do the damage against the very best, Cook struggles against class bowling, there isn't a lot of that about in this era. If A.C had opened in the Atherton/Stewart days he would average below 25.

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    Sorry Mark, Sachin is a truly great cricketer as was Viv Richards , Kallis will end up there in time , he has to , I reserve judgement on KP because as someone mentioned before me it's not just the volume of runs one acquires but also the way you get them and quite frankly albeit he only played 4 tests nobody made them easier that Barry Richards and I doubt ever will. He was a truly Great batsman and genius in one. I love watchinh KP bat but among his exhilarating knocks I have witnessed as have you a few innings like 18 in 62 balls , totally bogged down and frustrated , Barry Richards never ever allowed that in his time , Never , thats hpw great he was ..He alone dictated how well he would perform. really cannot say that about |KP , yet anyway..

  • Brendan on November 20, 2013, 12:38 GMT

    Half the comments here seem to suggest an article written on the eve of KPs 100th test should be about how he isn't any good, isn't english and should finish by listing bunch of players better than him. Good luck KP we love to hate you because you are so good.

  • V.L on November 20, 2013, 11:16 GMT

    Yeah what a fantastic player. A true gem from South Africa....Errr England! Be nice Mark. Say thank you SA ;) Jokes apart this guy is a truly great and intimidating player. He was the key in the Mumbai test and boosted the morale of the team, and deflated that of India, from which we could never recover. That was a match winning and may be even a Series winning knock. Aus are gonna get it from him big-time!

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2013, 10:56 GMT

    @ Vic Lewis: It is not only the runs you score, but also the way in which you score the runs. When KP gets a big score , almost always he dominates in such a way, the opponent feels defeated in their mind by the time. That is why the impact of KP is much more than Cook, although the England captain will go a longer way towards success than KP.

    For analogy, a Sehwag century was always more demoralizing to the opponent than a Dravid ton. Although as a test batsman Dravid was miles ahead of Sehwag.

  • Billy on November 20, 2013, 9:47 GMT

    @SamRoy, your analysis of Cook vs Pietersen only hangs by the fact that Pietersen averages 1.4 runs better than Cook. Cook is an opener, so adjusted for that, he would come out probably slightly better than Pietersen but as you mention, Pietersen has an x factor that arguably takes him past Cook. Having said that, if Cook averaged 52 rather than 47 and still failed against those bowling attacks that you mentioned, then your argument falls away. So back to your earlier comment, it is really all in the stats. Only when players have similar stats can you start comparing the various x factors that a player can offer.

  • sam on November 20, 2013, 9:02 GMT

    @Andrew_Ibbotson Cook failed against McGrath and Warne in Australia, Steyn-Philander-Morkel in England, was successful in SA before STeyn was fully fit and then failed, failed against Ajmal & co. in UAE. That's the only great bowling he has faced in his career. In 2010-11 in Ashes the Australian bowling and in the India-England seres in 2012 the bowling was quite ordinary.

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2013, 8:58 GMT

    Hahaha what?!?! SA must be proud.