February 5, 2014

The end of the Pietersen project

Leaving a series of disgruntled teams in his wake, Kevin Pietersen has only himself to blame for the sorry end to his England career

Tumbling, falling into the abyss: the Pietersen project appears to be over. At its core was a marvellous talent, studded with genius and driven by a contrary mind that has achieved its death wish. Whatever your faith, and even the believers might not argue this: Kevin Pietersen has brought pretty much everything upon himself. "It's not easy being me," he said not so long ago. Apparently not. And it is not easy dealing with you either, Kev. If it was, this sorry business would surely have been avoided.

Almost certainly it was Alastair Cook who called time. "It is him or me" will have been the message at recent meetings, and Paul Downton, the new managing director of England team affairs, concluded it must be "me". At least with that choice the rest of the team would stay on board the train. At the rate they have been hopping off, the risk of "him" was too great. Cook feels unforgivably let down. Allegedly, Pietersen became unmanageable in Australia, though, as this column has argued before, it would be no bad thing if we were told more of the facts. Whispers and rumours are unpleasant and destructive. Michael Vaughan is right in saying we need an explanation. After all, the biggest drawcard in English cricket has been fired for reasons other than his play.

Prior to the first Test in Brisbane, Pietersen's 100th, I interviewed him at some length for a television profile. He spoke brightly, admitted mistakes, stated clearly that he had 10,000 Test runs in mind, and lavished praise on his captain. Cook, he said, was a top bloke and an excellent leader. Cook, of course, had brought Pietersen in from the cold a year earlier. In another interview Cook said Pietersen was a rare talent and that 100 Tests was a very special achievement and to be applauded. The words were considered but not obviously warm. Perhaps Cook knew he had wrapped his arms around a time bomb.

Some of the team really don't like Pietersen. A few do. Only the fresh faces will still be working it out. Without KP around, Graeme Swann might still be playing and Andy Flower could still be in charge. Equally, without him England would not have won in India and may well not have won many other high-octane series in which he has changed the course of matches. Can't live with, can't live without. But not anymore.

It is too simplistic to say that Pietersen should have been managed more sympathetically. How many back-stabbings can a captain and coach take, if that is what was happening of course? Peter Moores, Andrew Strauss, Flower and Cook, all bloody from KP wars? Almost certainly. Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher were lucky to have him at the start, when his ambition was defined by the present and by performance, not by money and mood. Equally, it is daft to say that his shot selection in Australia could be excused by the tactics of counter-attack. With power comes responsibility and too often - in four of the five Tests, come to think of it - Pietersen perished without reference to the situation in which the team found itself. The nub of Downton's quote is the phrase: "We must start to rebuild, not only the team but the team ethic and philosophy." That's a slam dunk if ever there was one.

Someday down the track, he will wonder why on earth he was so contrary. It is easier to look back at your talent and then understand what you did, or did not, do with it

Goodness knows what happens if a Pietersen man is appointed as the new coach and Cook fails to last as captain. Perhaps there is a twist in this spicy tale yet.

The Pietersen project began at Nottinghamshire, after Clive Rice invited him over for a crack at county cricket. Unhappy in Natal, where the quota system denied his gifts the exposure he was sure they deserved, Pietersen jumped at the chance of a new life. Batting on a good pitch in a Test match arena, he startled everyone with his adventurous, often unorthodox style and then amazed them with the results that accrued. But he fell out with the folk at Trent Bridge and moved to Hampshire, where Shane Warne bellowed from the canopies of the sparkling new Rose Bowl pavilion about the boy from Pietermaritzburg who had to play for England immediately. The selectors agreed and against Australia in the glorious summer of '05, a star was born.

The slog-sweeps against Warne, the off-drives against Glenn McGrath, the flamingo-like swivel shots against Jason Gillespie and, best of all perhaps, the hook strokes from 150kph deliveries by Brett Lee, took the breath away from all of us in awe of the instinct and bravado. Of England batsmen since the war only Denis Compton, Ted Dexter and Ian Botham had played with such abandon. It was incredible to watch and it stayed so for much of a career that gave the England team a dimension it had lacked since Botham fell off the mountain of greatness.

These men of Southern Africa who have worn English colours are an interesting bunch. Tony Greig became captain but was sacked for desertion to Kerry Packer. He was a fine cricketer who knew no backward step and he was an easy man to follow. Allan Lamb had a rare talent and the stomach for a fight but he loved a party. To some degree this betrayed him but, conversely, it may be why England embraced him - an embrace that did not go unrequited. Like Lamb, Robin Smith relished the fastest bowling but found the patience and touch required for more subtle challenges hard to come by. Had self-belief rather than shyness been at the helm of his character, Smith might now be ranked among England's best. In summary, you would want all three by your side in the trenches.

Graeme Hick made runs for a living, tens of thousands of them at Worcestershire, the place he called home. But he found the spotlight difficult and retreated into himself in a way that Greig, say, or Lamb, would not understand. The more he played at Test level, the greater the pain. Jonathan Trott, with his practical method and nice sense of humour, appeared to have the balance right. But what do we know of cricketers at night when the demons of self-doubt and pity creep under the covers and invade the mind? Suddenly, inexplicably from the outside, it all became too much. Trott's future is in doubt.

Certainly, there is something in not being "English" while playing for England. Pietersen is tired of the references to South Africa. Courage is required to make the break from the land of your birth and to be adopted elsewhere. Pietersen's journey has been especially complicated. Having fallen foul of Nottinghamshire, he moved on from Hampshire too. Now it seems England have moved him out. There is only one common denominator.

Someday down the track, he will wonder why on earth he was so contrary. It is easier to look back at your talent and then understand what you did, or did not, do with it. Having known him quite well, I am saddened by this unattractive ending. There was probably an answer in there somewhere but not with the people charged with making the decision. They know too much and Downton had to take heed of their counsel.

His talent is a terrible loss to English cricket. The days will be duller without him, the team less interesting to watch. He will soon tire of a mercenary life in the world of T20, for his skills are greater than the parameter of the game. Oh dear.

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