April 2005 March 23, 2005

The only lane is the fast lane

Kevin Pietersen is everything that English cricket traditionally isn't, but he is not about to change gear, except for the next photo shoot

Kevin Pietersen is everything that English cricket traditionally isn't, but he is not about to change gear, except for the next photo shoot. Emma John finds him loving the opportunity and the limelight

Kevin Pietersen: 'I'm a good-looking lad, I can pull anything off, eh?' © Getty Images
Hair's good, isn't it?" Kevin Pietersen says suddenly. It is not the first time he has mentioned his recently re-touched highlights. This time he has caught his reflection in a window. "If it had looked rubbish, I'd have knocked it on the head." There is a pause, and a grin. "But I'm a good-looking lad, I can pull anything off, eh?"

Another year, another England prodigy with a sensational one-day entrance and an even more eye-catching hairstyle. Pietersen reckons James Anderson will be jealous of his hair ("especially now he's got a shaved head"). It will not be the only source of envy. In the ODIs in South Africa Pietersen stole the show, then came back for the fixtures and fittings. He has become England's latest hot ticket, the one the sponsors clamour to be linked with, the one Esquire magazine invites to photo shoots.

So when he arrives at the National Academy building in Loughborough, it is simply one more stop on a seemingly never-ending journey. "I've been absolutely so busy since I've been back," he says, an involuntary South African idiom creeping into his speech. "It's been incredible. Everything. Functions, interviews, sponsorship deals. I've loved it but I'm so tired. I must have done the M1 10 times in the last week." It is true, he does seem to revel in it, even if he does not always know what `it' is. "He just tells me when I've got stuff," he says, pointing towards the black Porsche visible in the car park. The owner of the car, his agent Adam Wheatley, is somewhere gathering him a coffee.

Pietersen is wearing what he calls rapper-chic. And despite the fact that the practice pitch outside is blanketed in snow, with more settling every minute, he is also wearing flip-flops. "I hate shoes," is his simple explanation. So is getting suited-and-booted for Esquire really his style? "Oh yeah. I love clothes. I've got more clothes than cricket equipment."

Yes, Kevin Pietersen is enjoying his time in the limelight, and he is too upfront to pretend otherwise. He talks about "building a good profile" and making contacts. He is happy under the rat-a-tat scrutiny of the camera - as unfazed as he was under the glare of his former fellow countrymen when, at Johannesburg, he stepped out under a new flag and shepherded England to victory. "I think that innings was one of the biggest I'll probably play in international cricket, that 22 not out," he says. "It just helped me settle down, helped me enjoy international cricket. And after that I realised that it will never be as bad as that - 35,000 people are booing you, every single person wants you out, every single person hates you."

Pietersen admits it was "frightening" but one senses the crowd abuse has become a badge of honour. "I got absolutely hammered - all those people going absolutely ballistic. I couldn't even hear Michael Vaughan at the other end talking to me."

He had lusty revenge in the next game at Bloemfontein. "Bloemfontein's an Afrikaans city, I thought I was going to get knocked again but, to be fair, they weren't the worst crowd. They weren't great, though. When I walked out to bat, the scoreboard said `Kevin Pietersen, welcome home'. The most sarcastic thing in the world. When I saw that, walking out to bat, it did something to me."

It certainly did. Ninety-one balls later he was celebrating his first international hundred by giving his helmet an almighty smooch. England tied the game in a last-ball thriller. And the fifth ODI at East London was equally sensational for Pietersen, if not for England. Almost single-handedly chasing a South African total of 311, he beat Marcus Trescothick's record for the fastest England one-day century, punching his hundred off the last ball of the match. "Going in in the 20th over, I didn't even dream of getting anywhere near to a hundred," he recalls. "I was missed stumped on 17 and to get them off 60-odd balls was, whew, flattering."

Pietersen's dynamic style has drawn instant comparisons with Andrew Flintoff. Some in the England camp have even suggested he hits the ball harder than Freddie - which is bad news for their sponsor Woodworm, who might need to start reinforcing their bats with steel. But there were a few mutterings that Pietersen's leg-side bias could yet be exposed. He is not worried. "In one-day cricket you have to be able to hit a ball into three different areas at once. You've got to know that, if the ball's there, you've got three different areas where you could score. That's how I go about it. I open up the off-side, I go down the ground, I open up the leg-side and I try to make sure I get a run a ball.

"I know where people are coming from, saying `you're wristy, you often use the leg-side', but that's where I score all my runs, so why not hit it there? I play differently in first-class cricket in England. My style doesn't change, I'm a positive player who likes to hit boundaries and score quickly, but in first-class cricket your technique changes, you can become a lot more patient. So in Test match or first-class cricket I won't have to hit the ball through the leg-side all the time. There'll be more scoring options all over."

An Englishman abroad © Getty Images
It is tempting to see Pietersen's performances as one big V-sign to the country he left five years ago, unhappy at the racial quota system that he believed was hampering his career. "Not at all, I didn't have to go back to South Africa to prove a point to anybody," he says. "I don't have any bitterness." `Quotas' have since become `targets'; does he think South African cricket has changed for the better since he left? "I don't really follow too much about South African cricket any more," he replies. "I've lost total interest."

That may be partly to demonstrate his commitment to his chosen home. It is a patriotism so fierce it is almost self-parody. "I love the country, I love the people, I love all the players, I love the management," he says. His already fleet speech hits new speeds as he approaches that well-worn theme, slipping into well-grooved phrases like "passion" and "honour".

There are things from the old country that stay with him. For one thing he remains a dedicated supporter of Natal Sharks, the Super 12 rugby union team. He also misses Africa's wildlife. "Living in England you don't get much wildlife and I'm an outdoor person. I love animals and I miss all that stuff. I miss the weather and I miss the beach."

And of course he misses his family, who followed him steadfastly round the country to all seven ODIs. His "absolutely amazing" parents, who used to get up at 5am to take him to the swimming pool and never missed a game, are unlikely to join him in Britain. "My eldest brother lives near Mum and Dad and they have two kids, so they're never going to leave their little grandchildren - one's just been born." Another brother lives in Johannesburg; the youngest, Bryan, has followed Pietersen to England and has been running a bar in Nottingham.

It is from these brothers that Pietersen says he gets his self-belief. "We grew up together and during grace before dinner you had to keep one eye open or else someone's going to nick your sausage. Playing rugby in the back garden, playing cricket, we were so competitive it was unbelievable ... I think it's a great asset to have. To be confident about your ability is vital. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

Listening to him, you cannot avoid the force of his self-confidence, as a fly cannot avoid a windscreen. Pietersen says he has had no time to dwell on his feats ("It's just been this curtain that's been opened, everybody shaking your hand, and I haven't even thought about that"), but he is not slow to list them or interrupt if a statistic is wrong ("an average of 150, wasn't it?"). He reminds me of a teenager, keen to appear grown-up and savvy but unable to hide his excitement at the amazing things he has pulled off and the fact that his life is, at present, pretty cool.

But what of it, if he has the stats to back it up? Since his first-class debut Pietersen has averaged 54.03, and in four Championship seasons he has scored 15 hundreds and three double-hundreds. "When I get to 20 and I get myself out I get pretty upset with myself. And I don't think I should get out after 100. If you look at most of my hundreds I think they're mostly not outs. I think if you've conquered the bowlers, and you've got 100, there's no way you should get out."

He credits it to his concentration techniques, themselves enhanced by a passion for Formula 1 (Ferrari, naturally) which he watches in the dressing room to help him take his mind off batting. "I'm pretty good at switching on and switching off. That's my big thing. I can talk about anything at the end of an over, I'm not really fussed. It's something that Graham Ford, the ex-South African coach [now at Kent] told me. He said there's a 15-second gap; switch yourself on as soon as the bowler gets to the top of his mark. Nothing else but the white ball or the red ball. And when you're at the non-striker's end, turn off. If a bloke's trying to be switched on and he's all tense and fidgety at the non-striker's end, that's when lapses of concentration affect you a lot more."

© Getty Images
Does he ever suffer doubts? "Do I have doubts?" He looks almost surprised to hear the word. He stops talking for the first time, pauses, looks up, makes a humming sound. "I think cricket is a big-time confidence game and I don't think I've got any doubts at the minute the way I've played in the last month or two." Only one thing is bothering him at present and that is the lack of a girlfriend. "But I'm working on that," he says. Will he be calling on any tried and trusted techniques? "I don't struggle," he winks.

The self-assurance, along with the accent, is probably one of the most un-British things about him. That is not to say it is unmatched in the England camp. Darren Gough is 10 years Pietersen's senior and Durban is a long way from Barnsley but the two are now "big buddies" and share "similar interests". Ask what interests and he gives a smirk, followed by a peal of slightly mischievous laughter.

"The one-dayers didn't really mix with the Test-matchers, so there were about six or seven of us who spent a lot of time together." The cheekiness, the earrings, the utter self-confidence: no wonder they got on. "Apparently I'm starting to talk like him as well," says Pietersen. "I respect every single thing he says and I love his approach to a game. It helped me a lot to have a senior bloke like that right by my side all the time. In terms of lifestyle, in terms of cricket, everything. He was instrumental in getting me to relax." His new mentor this summer will be Shane Warne, who lobbied Hampshire to sign Pietersen from Nottinghamshire. "He's a genius, and to have a bloke like that wanting me in his cupboard to play alongside him was most definitely flattering." And there may be another benefit. "I'm nowhere near Tests yet, I've only played a few ODIs, but playing with Warney will definitely smooth out a possible confrontation if I do happen to come up against him in the summer."

Feeling wanted will be pretty important to Pietersen. Last year he was forced to play out his contract at Notts, despite having fallen out with the dressing room in 2003 and asked for a release. "The previous year was a joke," he says. "I didn't enjoy it at all and everybody knows I didn't enjoy it but last year was a case of sitting down with coach and captain before the season to talk about how we go about it. And we did well last year, Notts got promoted, I think ... I don't even know what happened, I can't remember.

Promoted or stayed up or whatever. I didn't have a fantastic season. I only got a thousand runs or whatever it was. By my standards I didn't like it. I was just in and out, in and out. I don't think my total focus was there, to be honest."

Pietersen thinks he has matured as a person since those bad times at Notts earned him a reputation as an abrasive character. "Definitely I've calmed down a lot more. I came over as a 19-year-old by myself, I had to fight for myself, find out everything by myself, buy a house for myself, make sure no one ran over me." He has yet to meet his new team-mates - and still has several trips up and down the M1 to undertake as he moves his gear down to Hampshire. "A move they say is one of the most stressful times of your life," he says.

If this winter has shown anything, it is that for Kevin Pietersen, the move was well worth the trouble.

This article was first published in the April issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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