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There have been fall-outs and controversies along the way, but Kevin Pietersen has been a central part of one of the most successful periods of English cricket
George Dobell in Brisbane
November 19, 2013
"A great journey" was how Kevin Pietersen reflected upon his career so far. It seems an apt description for the man who will, all being well, become the tenth England player to earn his 100th Test cap when the first Ashes Test begins in Brisbane on Thursday.
For various reasons, Pietersen has not always enjoyed the praise his success as a cricketer warrants. Perhaps, as he suggested, it is the belief of some that England is his adopted country - he is actually a dual-national that dilutes the praise; perhaps it is the perception of him as arrogant or brash; perhaps he is seen as selfish or a mercenary. Maybe, in a nation that was, until recently, starved of sporting success for a long time, Pietersen's single-minded nature struck a discordant chord.
But what few could doubt is that he had played a starring role in one of the finest chapters in the history of English cricket. With Pietersen in the side, England have won the Ashes regularly - something that seemed almost impossible not so long ago - they have won their first global limited-overs trophy - the World T20 in 2010 - they have won a Test series in India and risen, albeit briefly, to the top of the rankings in all three formats of the game .
It is no coincidence that Pietersen's career has coincided with a period of such success. He was the Man of the Tournament in that 2010 success, he was the man who supplied the match-defining century when England won back the Ashes at The Oval in 2005 and, over the years, he has played some of the greatest Test innings of the era; three of them in 2012 alone. Only one England player in history - Alastair Cook - has scored more than his 23 Test centuries and only four have scored more than his 7,887 Tests runs.
We ask a great deal of our sporting heroes. We expect them to be lions on the pitch and kittens off it. While Pietersen has never been involved in a serious case of dissent, while no-one denies his work-ethic or professional attitude to fitness and while he has never been involved in some of the off-pitch episodes that blighted the careers of Andrew Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham, he has attracted some disproportionately fierce criticism from the media.
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"I call it confidence; you guys call it arrogance because it makes for a better headline," Pietersen said at the Gabba on Tuesday. "I've got to be confident in my ability. Clearly as a South African coming into England I had to really fight some tough battles and I had to be single minded in achieving what I had to try and achieve.
"A lot of great sportsman have that little bit of something to them that makes them try to be the best and want to be the best and wake up every single day wanting to improve. It doesn't get documented how much I train, or how hard I train away from the game where no-one sees what I do."
There have, of course, been some notable bumps in the road. Apart from the inevitable fluctuations in form, there was the clash with Peter Moores which cost both men their jobs and saw Pietersen stripped of the captaincy and there was 'text-gate,' which saw Pietersen dropped from the Test side for the only time in his career. If the latter was silly - and probably no more than that - the former was an attempt, albeit a clumsy and possibly ill-judged attempt, to improve the fortunes of the England team. Perhaps, as times passes, neither incident appears quite so Machiavellian as it did at the time. Clumsy, yes; Machiavellian, no.
Nor is Pietersen blameless for some of the negative press. There have been times when his relationship with the media has been frosty in the extreme and times - at Nottinghamshire, Hampshire and England - when he appeared ambivalent about his team-mates and team. It is not so long ago that, when asked about the performance of Chris Wood, the Hampshire seamer with whom he had just played a game, he replied "Sorry, which one is Wood?"
Pietersen, in an open, engaging and often lighthearted press conference, admitted he had made mistakes, but suggested that, as he had matured, that he had learned from the experiences and that he was now as happy and settled as he has been at any stage of his career.
"We all make mistakes," he said when asked about the incident involving messages about Andrew Strauss. "Do you ever look at things and think why you've done things? We all make mistakes. You learn from the ups. You learn from the downs. I had lunch with Strauss yesterday.
"We're all getting on really well within the team. We're all winning together, we've played a lot of cricket together. These things happen. You have it in all walks of life. You have ups; you have downs. We're a really good bunch at the moment. We're going really well. I'm so lucky and so proud to be where I am."
Some credit is due to Andy Flower, Cook and the rest of the England management, too. There were times during the texting incident when it seemed the attitude of the England management was unnecessarily punitive. But, 18 months or so later, Pietersen has been successfully 'reintegrated' into the team and, according to all reports, is the model professional on and off the pitch. The help and encouragement he has given younger players on this tour has been admirable.
History tends to strip its victims to the bone. Characters become caricatures and lives are summed up by a single incident. So Henry VIII is distilled into the king who beheaded his wives, Churchill is distilled into a cigar-chomping war leader and John Prescott becomes the man who thumped a member of the public. The subtleties and contrasts that make any individual tend to get lost.
So how will Pietersen be remembered? Will he, like Tony Grieg or Hansie Cronje, be remembered more for his off-pitch influence, or will he be remembered as England's finest batsman since Hutton, Hammond and Hobbs?
Hopefully it will be his exploits on the pitch that escape time's filter. Few, very few, players inspire the joy and excitement of Pietersen in full flow and it seems petty to focus on the flaws when the good qualities are so overwhelming. Players should be judged on their performance on the pitch, not on their relationship with the media.
The story isn't over, either. Pietersen's hunger for the game remains and there are a couple of notable ambitions yet to fulfil. It now seems he will play until 2016 at least.
"With this side, we've won everything," Pietersen said. "We've won a Twenty20 World Cup, Ashes home and away and we've won in India.
"The World Cup 2015 is something I'd love to have a go at with England. And I've got home and away hundreds against each major nation, apart from South Africa. I think our tour to South Africa is in 2015-16. So if the old man can survive until then, I'd like to get there and I'd like to reach 10,000 Test runs.
Every time I put on an Eng shirt I'm incredibly proud & thankful & I'm so grateful for all ur support & the support of my amazing teammates.— Kevin Pietersen (@KP24) November 19, 2013
"I know there's been a lot of people talking about my career and saying that I'm probably going to finish at the end of this series. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it's my opinion that I'll be playing for a while yet. I'm loving playing with this side."
The feelings would now appear to be a mutual. Just as Pietersen cannot succeed without the support of his team-mates, so they have come to accept that they are stronger for his presence. Teams don't need to be affectionate towards one another; they just need to respect each other.
The England team, like the England spectators and the England media, will miss Pietersen when he is gone. He may, at times, be frustrating; he may, at times, be infuriating, and he has, of course, made mistakes. But he is a great batsman and such players come along very, very rarely. To see him express those talents on one of the biggest stages of all - an Ashes series - should be a joy.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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