Kevin Pietersen has not lost his Midas touch. Of course it is sheer folly to assess a captain's worth after a few matches played on home terrain against a waning opponent whose most accurate leather-flinger is sitting in a nearby commentary box. Still, Pietersen has grabbed the reins in the same way he has seized every opportunity. Far from shrinking under the weight of responsibility, the settler from Pietermaritzburg has put into practice the attitude that carried him from the second XI at Maritzburg College to the leading role in the country where bat and ball first fell into combat. Responsibility has not stopped him in his tracks. Instead he has kept powering along, aggressive in thought and deed, conveying conviction, confronting opponents, taking the game forwards. They say a man rises to the level of his incompetence. In that case Pietersen has a little further to go.
Pietersen's first act as captain boded well. Given the task of choosing a team for the Oval Test, he plumped for an extra bowler, a strategy that left his batting looking as short as a bulldog's tail. Already he knew that captains must not cower, must not try to cover weaknesses, but ought rather to identify strengths and play to them. As Donald Sutherland pointed out in Kelly's Heroes, positive thoughts have a power of their own. Pietersen has always known that, has trained himself to eliminate half thoughts and hesitations. Mind you, the bridge was blown up all the same, and Sutherland had to take his tanks on an even more hazardous route.
If anything, Pietersen's next moves were more telling. His elevation to the captaincy has had a marked effect on the performances of England's other crucial players, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff. It cannot be coincidental. Both cricketers have in recent campaigns caused frustration and provoked criticism, most of it deserved. But a new broom must sweep clean. Pietersen did not allow past perceptions to affect his judgment. After all, pace bowlers and allrounders of this calibre are thin on the ground. Far from turning his back, he decided to challenge them. Doubtless he knows that few things inspire a man as much as a sense of importance.
Now Harmison is back playing both forms of the game, taking wickets, talking sense, and looking cheerful. Along the way he has been able to reduce his game to its bare essentials. People talk glibly about keeping things simple, but that requires an understanding of how things work. A sportsman sets out with natural ability, learns the hard way about limitations, and hopefully emerges wiser and better informed and therefore able to correct faults and avoid panic. It's not so much that Harmison was weak or sulky. He did not know enough, and was poorly placed to handle setbacks. It is not so long ago that he was sending them into the side netting off two paces. Actually it was just before the start of the last Ashes series.
Besides reassuring Harmison, the new captain has also shown faith in Flintoff by pushing him up the batting order. Flintoff is a fine cricketer who has never quite worked out how he takes wickets or score runs. Torn between hitting and playing, pounding and probing, he has performed below his highest capabilities. Pietersen has used him as an attacking middle-order batsman, giving him the license he needs to bat with gusto without making him think his wicket does not matter. Captains tread a fine line. Knowing that match-winners are precious, they want them to attack, but on the other hand they must not play like fools. It is a matter of driving at full pelt and wearing a seat belt; a question of backing them when they make a hash of it but not when they let themselves down.
Evidently Pietersen has understood his men. Both Flintoff and Harmison rise when England rise. Both respond to atmosphere. It seems that they lead the way, but it is an illusion. They need someone to let them loose. Both have responded well. Part of the reason Pietersen was the right choice was because he could coax the best from these patchy performers. And he is also ruthless enough to dump them and not look back.
And so it is a case of "so far so good" for the new man. England made the correct choice. Not that they had all that much choice in the aftermath of Michael Vaughan's timely withdrawal. Pietersen's appointment was the culmination of a long, bold and hazardous journey. Naturally he was delighted by his promotion. It had been a rough ride. In his early days in county cricket he was regularly forced to stand in a corner and sing "God Save the Queen". Anything to put the loud intruder in his place. He did not baulk at it, understood that he had to pay his dues. Later his kit was thrown over the balcony by his captain, and this time he retaliated. He has had his revenge on all who crossed him.
Recognition and a desire to be accepted have counted amongst Pietersen's driving forces. Throughout his time in England, he has done everything he can to demonstrate his commitment: scoring runs, tearing attacks apart, awakening the national team, helping to win back the Ashes. He knew it was not enough and so went further, adding patriotic tattoos to his body and displaying them to all-comers. It was an attempt to display permanence, to convince sceptics that he was not flying a flag of convenience, did not yearn for veldt and beach and braais and wors (though everyone knows he does). And he went even further, burning bridges with his former country, picking a fight with Graeme Smith, portraying himself as a victim (not an easy task for a well raised boy from a comfortable family, who attended a prestigious school). In his mind his country had let him down. Of course it was an oversimplification, but it has been a powerful motivating force.
His promotion to the captaincy was important because it meant he mattered. He needed England and they needed him. Throughout he has been forced to fight for the recognition he thought he deserved. Repeatedly the world told him that he was humdrum, and always he felt he was exceptional. England had the fortune to be his proving ground, the place where the upstart made his name. English cricket has been a beneficiary, not a prophet. And now it has had the sense to give him his head.
Throughout these first matches in charge, Pietersen has retained his aggression. Naturally he has batted in the same forthright, apparently extravagant and yet calculated, manner. There is nothing half-baked about him. Sometimes it gets him into trouble.
His dismissals tend to attract excessive censure. Pietersen tries to dictate the course of events, and that requires risk. Even his worst dismissals in the recently completed series can be defended. He was trying to impose himself. Another ten minutes and it might have worked. Meanwhile team-mates nibbled like aged hamsters. And anyhow there is a little groundwater between a breathtaking counter-attack at the critical moment in an Ashes decider and an assault on a seamer that might have changed the game. Not everything can be judged by its outcome.
Typically, too, Pietersen ended up on the winning side. That has always been his aim and his expectation. Apparently he lost only two matches in an undistinguished school career. College, as his seat of learning is generally called, much as Gandhi is Gandhi and Dylan is Dylan, does not like to lose and makes no apologies for the fact. Hard work, high standards and a rugged culture are the cornerstones of the school's ethic. Not long ago the entire student body gathered on the main field to protest about a demotion imposed upon a head boy for robustly punishing recalcitrant first formers. They were complaining about the oncoming softness. College is a tough place for tough people, and Pietersen thrived within its walls.
Yet his elevation to the England job was not universally acclaimed. Observers could remember Ian Botham's disastrous stint as captain, and worried that his equally brash successor might make the same mistakes. But Botham was young and reckless and self-indulgent. He convinced himself that he could take everyone along with him on his adventure. It was a fantasy that became a nightmare. Pietersen is more ruthless, experienced and individualistic. He is prepared to make unpopular decisions. Indeed his career tells of little else.
Considering his extraordinary feats it must seem that South African cricket blundered horribly when it allowed Pietersen to slip through its grasp. By no means is it as simple as that. Despite all the nonsense he has talked over the years, as a boy Pietersen was just another hot-headed hopeful. To his subsequent regret, his experienced school coach did not pick him to play for the first X1 till his final term. Previously Mike Bechet had preferred Matthew Cairns, a little legspinner who immigrated to New Zealand. Eventually Pietersen was chosen as a hard-hitting lower-order batsman and a useful offspinner. He was big and upright and gave the ball a thump. That did not set him apart; so did almost all of his team-mates. It is the College way. His bowling was tidy, but undemanding. In short, Pietersen seemed no more likely to make his mark than 50 others. But already he was a legend in his own mind.
After school Pietersen fought for his place in the KwaZulu-Natal side, but his performances were modest and his progress slow. Overall he played ten matches for various provincial teams, collecting 253 runs in 13 innings at an average of 25.3, and taking 23 wickets at an average of 33.13. He only scored two fifties, and one of them for the B side. It was hardly the stuff of legends. Yet belief did not wither. Next he represented KZN on a pre-season tour to Western Australia, and took five wickets in a warm-up match. Aggrieved that his performance had been ignored in the newspapers, he confronted the reporter and was duly told that he had bowled tripe and was lucky the batsmen were hitting out. Already he was impatient, confident and headstrong. In the words of Muhammad Ali, he was not "conceited so much as convinced". And yet there was one innings that might have rung bells. Playing against England in a four-day match in 1999-2000, Pietersen struck four sixes as he charged to 61 not out in 57 balls.
And so Pietersen went off in search of an opening. Already he had printed business cards introducing himself as "Kevin Pietersen - Professional Cricketer". In his mind his destiny was not in doubt, merely his location. It was a bold outlook. Men like him must rise or face ridicule.
Now comes the part of his career that has been rewritten more times than Russian history. Following in the footsteps of hundreds of young South African and Australian cricketers, he went to England to spend a winter playing club cricket. Clive Rice had seen him play at a school's festival, and invited him to sign for Nottinghamshire. Pietersen leapt at the chance to play competitive cricket for good money under a coach he respected. At this stage he was not thinking about changing allegiance, did not understand a choice had to be made.
Soon Pietersen's hand was forced. He consulted past players, talked to KZN officials and flew to Johannesburg to meet Ali Bacher, always seeking reassurances. None were forthcoming. It could hardly have been otherwise. Although a junior contract was offered, no promises were provided. And so Pietersen packed his bag for England. Nor did he go quietly, attacking South African cricket officials as he departed.
His remarks did not go down well. Nor were they justified. He was not rejected, he walked out. Other promising white cricketers stayed and proved their worth. Even so South Africa have been too harsh on him. He does not deserve to be singled out merely because he made it. Pietersen is not the only College boy, let alone KZN cricketer, to try his luck overseas. Ant Botha has been playing county cricket for years.
Pietersen joined Rice in Nottinghamshire, scored heavily in his first season, and stayed for three years. It was his first move in pursuit of the greatness he felt within, an extraordinarily willful and audacious step towards his destiny. Before anyone knew his name, he was shouting it from the rooftops. Back home he delighted in driving around in a car with "Kevin Pietersen - Nottingham professional" blazed on its bonnet. At least he brightened up a city described by novelist Tom Sharpe, once an inhabitant, as "half the size of a New York cemetery and twice as dead".
Seeking greatness, Pietersen continued to surround himself with it, pursued it in every arena. He worked hard and took no prisoners. When Nottinghamshire did not meet his standards, Rice having departed, Pietersen walked out with a year left on his contract. Eager to rub shoulders with Shane Warne, he joined Hampshire. From a distance it might seem that he was craving money and attention. Certainly he took every opportunity that arose. But it was not about glory or glitter. He wanted to be exceptional. It did not always make him easy company.
And now the boy from Pietermaritzburg has become captain of all England. Finally the radical has been made welcome. England's new captain has dared to explore, even to expand, his horizons. It is one of the most hazardous undertakings known to man. He went in search of the supreme. It is exactly the journey England have been so reluctant to undertake. Captain and country may not always like each other, but they will rise together.