<
>

Pietersen stars in his own muppet show

Kevin Pietersen executed a switch hit for a six Getty Images

As Kevin Pietersen bade farewell to Australia, and gushed with affection towards everybody even vaguely connected with the Big Bash League, tossing imaginary gladioli into the stands like Dame Edna Everage on speed, for the hopeful young professionals of county cricket the love was in short supply.

Their efforts were denigrated in a single sentence, their ambitions dismissed with the same insouciance that he later reserved for his brilliant 86m switch hit against Brad Hogg, the shot of the tournament perhaps, before Pietersen's involvement with Melbourne Stars ended at the semi-final stage.

"All the muppets who are on £18 grand, £15 grand, either you become better or you go and do something else," Pietersen said, as he reflected on the ECB's failure to deliver him a franchise T20 tournament to order. "The best players would play against each other week in week out. That's how you become better."

Not for the first time, it was not as much what he said as the way he said it.

One former county chief executive, clearly incensed by the use of the word "muppet", summed up Pietersen's contribution to England's T20 debate on Twitter with the hashtag #talentedfool. As Australia wondered why England eventually shunned a superficially charming batsman of wondrous talent, Pietersen had given them another little example.

The drip, drip, drip, if not of justification, certainly of explanation.

"All the muppets who are on £18 grand, £15 grand, either you become better or you go and do something else. The best players would play against each other week in week out. That's how you become better"

When it comes to the Muppets, my grouching from afar at Pietersen's insensitive contribution to the debate on the future of T20 in England and Wales clearly comes from the school of Statler and Waldorf, just more grumbles from the wings from an old bloke when everybody else is hoping to enjoy the show.

"All the muppets who are on £18 grand, £15 grand, either you become better or you go and do something else. The best players would play against each other week in week out. That's how you become better"

And that switch hit against Hogg, well it was something special; no wonder many people look at it and remain disenchanted that Pietersen is no longer playing for England. The shot he got out to wasn't too hot, mind.

I don't have much time for the modern tendency to take offence at the merest slight. Indeed, Pietersen's intention in a conversation with a small group of English journalists was partly driven by a desire to build bridges. But in that one phrase, his conceited rubbishing of his fellow professionals jarred badly: young lads trying to make the grade, harbouring the same ambitions that once caused Pietersen himself to leave South Africa and come to England in search of cricketing opportunity.

He was pretty grateful then to find a professional system full of muppets in which he could develop his skills and take the first steps to international stardom. Without county cricket he might never have made it. He even had a muppet hairstyle to celebrate the fact.

This is the same Pietersen, too, who only in November was so alarmed by the fall in participation levels in English cricket that he volunteered on Twitter to run a few school coaching sessions, imagining himself an inspiration for the masses. It was doubtless a response that briefly came from the heart. But when it comes to coaching, condescension is not a good look.

As he flies back to England, wondering whether the glare through the window is the sun or his own reflected glory, it is instructional to reflect on football for a moment - and, in particular, the respectful response of Jose Mourinho to the shock FA Cup exit of Chelsea - Pietersen's adopted club - at the hands of Bradford City, from League One, on Saturday.

Mourinho is not short of ego, but his even-handed recognition that Bradford - presumably muppets in Pietersen's terminology - deserved praise was perfectly judged. Chelsea, even a severely weakened Chelsea, should be disgusted with themselves, opined Mourinho, but Bradford's performance had a level of personal achievement, team ethic and ambition that at its heart communicated something about the beauty of the game.

This is not to say that ESPNcricinfo has been blind to the need to debate England's T20 future and question whether standards are high enough. We recently spent an entire week doing just that. If the counties are to beat off the clamour for franchises from fans who believe themselves disenfranchised, and look upon the IPL and BBL with envy, they need to win public affection - and quickly. If they fail, change is inevitable.

But Pietersen, by rubbishing not just the structure but also the people who play in it, has once again put himself at odds with an English professional system - lest we forget, the only one of its type in the world - in which communal support and mutual respect are paramount.

He disses the £15-20,000 salaries right at the bottom of the county pay scale in a year when the top 1% of the world's population are about to take control of 50% of its wealth. There is no doubt which side of that line he sees himself on.

That Pietersen cannot be sure of a contract in the NatWest Blast this summer is clearly ridiculous. The one-game-a-week structure does not suit a player who wants to exist as a T20 specialist and who becomes supremely bored by Championship cricket. The structure might yet make him unaffordable. He has good reason to feel resentful.

But against the muppets of English cricket in 2014 he averaged 22.50 in 12 innings, with a top score of 39 - about half the average he posted in the supposedly superior BBL. As the spotlight falls upon him and the crowds cheer, he might believe, like the muppet diva herself, Miss Piggy, that "there is no one in the world to compare with moi" but the statistics did not exactly back him up.

On this occasion at least, it takes a muppet to know one.