KP in précis
"For anyone whose job it was to report on the England cricket team, Kevin Pietersen was the gift that just kept on giving," writes Simon Wilde in the introduction to On Pietersen, his portrait of the now-exiled batsman. Pietersen's gifts are no longer wanted by England - though he has not quite given up on the relationship - but he remains journalistic catnip. It will be quite some time before people are tired of talking about Kevin.
An official Pietersen autobiography, potentially stuffed with revelations about the schism that led to him being effectively sacked after the Ashes tour of Australia, is expected in October. The stipulations of confidentiality signed up to by Pietersen and the ECB immediately afterwards have left a lacuna, filled by gossip, contradictory claims and the odd unguarded comment, fanned by the bellows of social media. That England continue to struggle after their nuclear winter meltdown, a winless run now extended to ten Tests, has done little to help either party move on.
Into this febrile environment slips On Pietersen, a slim volume coolly charting one of the most tempestuous England cricket careers of modern times. Wilde, who has written about equally exotic subjects in Ranjitsinhji, Ian Botham and Shane Warne, covered Pietersen's rise and fall in its entirety as cricket correspondent for the Sunday Times and provides a clear-sighted, dispassionate attempt at deconstructing player and personality.
It is easy to see what makes Pietersen such a fascinating subject, the peacock strut and flamingo strokeplay allied to an uncompromising attitude that caused him to fall out with coaches, captains and team-mates at several clubs and more than one country. "When Geoff Boycott found himself the best batsman in the Yorkshire side by a country mile, he took consolation in being the biggest fish in a small pond. Pietersen contemplated upgrading the pond," Wilde writes.
Yet, as much as he was a bon vivant on the field, batting without fear of consequence, Pietersen's seeming arrogance masked his insecurities. Always a hard worker, he had sought success (and, perhaps, money) rather than fame and his bullishness was partly a self-confidence trick. He has ended up with a sort of infamy - or, echoing Kenneth Williams' line, "They've all got it in for me."
His materialism was used as evidence of a gauche personality early in his career and the "skunk" hairstyle of those days chimed with the "warrior" character type assigned to him by England's psychologist, Dr Mark Bawden. Yet, as Pietersen revealed in a radio interview before the 2013 Ashes, according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test, he is an introvert. "I'm very much an introverted person. I like my own company... The confidence has grown from what I've achieved on the cricket field, but I'm not as confident as anybody thinks."
Such contradictions underline why his loss of the England captaincy - rather than the texting affair that led to his 2012 suspension or this year's dramatic final curtain - was the central episode of his career. The word "trust" was ubiquitous in its absence when Pietersen was dropped over messages sent to South Africa players about Andrew Strauss but, Wilde suggests, England had undermined their star player long before then.
Pietersen was "the outsider who had craved - and been granted - acceptance" but, after being forced to resign as captain in the rupture that cost Peter Moores the England coach's job (for the first time), he now felt betrayed by the establishment. Up to that point, Pietersen had made 15 centuries and averaged 50.48 from 45 Tests; in 59 subsequent Test matches, he averaged 44.53, with eight more hundreds.
While the narrative of Pietersen's arrival from South Africa to play for Nottinghamshire and, eventually, carve his initials on English cricket is well known, Wilde skilfully weaves his character study so that it never feels like a bland retreading of history. Through nine sections, from "Identity" and "Saviour" to "Ego" and "The Fall", we traverse the psycho geography. Without direct access to Pietersen, Wilde mines more than a decade's worth of interviews and reminiscences to sketch his outlines.
The chapters on Pietersen's technique and preparation are particularly worthwhile, his meticulous approach to batting typified by plans to take on Glenn McGrath during the 2005 Ashes, his debut Test series. Rod Marsh, England's academy director a decade ago, said Pietersen's ability to learn quickly was "freakish" after it took him only ten minutes of watching team-mate Graham Napier in the nets on an England A tour to fix a problem against spin. Yet, when a more serious chink in his technique was revealed by a succession of slow left-armers, Pietersen suffered a dark night of the soul, eventually resorting to denial. Once again, the bravado was undercut.
If Pietersen the person could appear shallow, as a subject he remains intriguing, even though the result has been plenty of obviously colour-coded analysis. Wilde writes: "He was a genius. He was difficult. He was a mercenary. He was selfish. He was a plastic Brit. Why would anyone bother to dig deeper when there was such a colourful back-story to regurgitate? Who cared if he was actually more complex?"
Wilde's attempt at deciphering Pietersen is sensitive and insightful but, unfortunately, the deep end of the pool is roped off. He is indebted to numerous secondary sources and, without being able to actually ask, has to make assumptions. At 180 pages, On Pietersen is more précis than opus, an engaging read that can be skipped through in less time than KP would take in reaching three figures. Any flaws are faithfully reproduced.
by Simon Wilde
Simon & Schuster
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick