Kevin Pietersen is not everyone's cup of tea but he seems destined to play for England before 2004 is out. Lawrence Booth meets him
He was born in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa but his mother comes from Canterbury and he says he feels "100% English". He is regarded as a black sheep but the first impressions he made on the ECB Academy's recent tour of India were whiter than white. He argues the case for A but, by the time he has paused for breath, is convinced of the merits of B. For better or worse he has dyed his brown hair blond and sprouted a curly mullet. "I am large, I contain multitudes," mused the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman. Pietersen is large all right and he certainly contains multitudes. The question is: can he put them to good use?
Not since the heyday of Graeme Hick in the late 1980s has a young batsman battered county attacks so remorselessly, so often. Like Hick Pietersen is tall (6ft 4in) and strong (a net session at Chennai's Chidambaram Stadium becomes an exercise in ball-fetching as Pietersen peppers the concrete stands and the streets beyond). Like Hick he is murderous off the front foot. And like Hick he has had to serve out a qualification period before he can represent England. The exact date is a matter of some confusion but it is thought that Pietersen will become eligible in time for September's ICC Champions Trophy ("what's that?" he asks ingenuously), followed by the fairytale prospect of a tour of his old stamping grounds in South Africa.
That, though, is where comparisons end. While Hick's much trumpeted entry on to the international stage in 1991 was bedevilled by self-doubt and Curtly Ambrose, Pietersen, a stronger player of the bouncer, will be afflicted by neither. "I'd love to go to South Africa, there's no doubt about it," he says. "I got some runs [50 off 61 balls] against them in the Getty fixture last summer and Kallis bowled me a bumper first up. If I went to South Africa, I don't think I'd get many balls in my section of the pitch."
The prospect of South African sledging does not faze him. More of a concern are the inevitable English jibes about passports of convenience. "There's no doubt about it," he says. "We feel the pressure because of coming from South Africa, and the things that people say," he says, empathising with the Zimbabwe-born Hick. "I know I've just got to continue scoring runs. It's very difficult, it's easy to get side-tracked and I'm not going to lie about it." His conclusion, though, is completely un-Hick: "I think I'm talented enough to get some runs under my belt."
Of that there is little doubt. In 2001, his first season with Nottinghamshire, the 21-year-old Pietersen topped the county's averages with 1,275 runs at 57.95. In 2002 he smashed four centuries in a week, including the county's highest post-war score, 254 not out against Middlesex at Trent Bridge. And on the recent tour of India he hit four hundreds in four games, leaving his fellow future England hopefuls for dead and himself with a first-class average of 54.48. "If he can maintain his first season's form," wrote the Wisden Almanack in 2002, "the name of Pietersen should be pencilled in for future Test squads."
With Pietersen, though, life has rarely been that simple. In 2001, after only 10 first-class matches for KwaZulu-Natal, he decided he had had enough of what he regarded as the unfair selection policy of post-apartheid South Africa. With the aid of his British passport, and encouraged by his mentor Clive Rice, who was then the coach at Trent Bridge, he threw in his lot with England. "Merit selection wasn't really in place in South Africa," he says with vowels straight from the veld. "There was a lot of discrimination between blacks and whites and whatever."
This was all grist to the mill of critics who argue that Pietersen could one day disrupt the England dressing room. And it made his butter-couldn't-melt demeanour in India all the more unexpected. Not all his Academy colleagues had taken to him when the squad gathered in Loughborough towards the end of last year. But to watch Pietersen in India - joking around with his new team-mates and chatting amiably with Mick Newell, the Nottinghamshire coach who was escorting several young players to Dennis Lillee's fast-bowling school in Chennai - was to witness a man who either had embarked on a less than sincere charm offensive or was making a genuine effort to put his prickly reputation behind him. He even said he was "thrilled to bits" to be there.
Marsh, whose end-of-tour report held the key to Pietersen's short-term prospects of playing for England, was pleasantly surprised. "He's always first on the coach and the last to leave practice," he said admiringly.
Pietersen feels that the swaggering confidence that has not always made him popular in the past has also been his downfall on the pitch. "I think some bowlers can't bowl when they can, which is just silly in some instances," he admits. "I think I've matured a heck of a lot in the last four years and realised that I have to play situational cricket now. I can't just go out and smash it."
Smashing the ball, however, remains his forte fortissimo. In the second one-day game against India A at Bangalore, Pietersen cover-drove the first ball of the match for four, reached a 32-ball half-century with a flick for six over midwicket and finished with 131 off 122 deliveries - figures which might have been even more prodigious had his team-mates not forced him to consolidate by collapsing at the other end. Out of a total of 228 the next best score was Graham Wagg's 29.
Away from the troubles at Trent Bridge Pietersen is courteous, eager to please and clear about his objectives. He wants to improve his under-rated off-spin and his already spectacular fielding and become, as he puts it, a "three-in-three cricketer". And, though he is not renowned for being one of the game's great thinkers, he has a theory to explain the Academy's 3-0 defeat in the one-day series. "I think they're trying too hard to impress Rod," he says. "It could be some sort of a flaw; they might be messing themselves up a little bit."
It is tempting to say that Pietersen should know. But, if he can keep his head down this summer, all the problems might just be worth it.
This article was first published in the April 2004 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
Click here for further details.