In appreciating the last of Kevin Pietersen, we appreciate the fleeting nature of cricket itself
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The pleasures of watching Kevin Pietersen bat remain high-end. His innings are squashed into the box of T20 now, robbed of the epic scale of his Test-match symphonies, but those knife-edge moments so deeply familiar to his fans still happen.
The other day, Pietersen swept his first ball over square leg for six and then edged the next past the keeper's gloves. The dead-skunk 'do feels as ancient as MySpace - the hair is salt-and-pepper instead - yet his arrival at the crease creates the same electric surge it always did: he has the slightly alien presence of the genuine superstar. He is 36-and-a-half years old, far closer to the end than the beginning, and there's always an accompanying sadness when a player reaches those moments.
It runs deeper where Pietersen is concerned because his batting is still palpably good. He has entered that rich coda that some batsmen find, when the eye is not yet gone and the skills have reached such a peak that control is almost total. Musicians and artists get it too, when their work has lost the shock of the new but the craftsmanship takes over. Pietersen's work in the T20 leagues of the world has been of a superlative standard, even if the bowling he faces has not always matched it.
His end days are both thoroughly modern and in a minor key. The edgy parts of his personality have robbed him of the chance to go out on laps of honour during sun-flooded twilights, and they retain the power to provoke: any suggestion on social media that he might still play for England risks an instantaneous flaming. He will be argued over long after he has thrown his bat into the kitbag for the final time.
The campaign for his reinstatement, such as it is, is led by Piers Morgan, and it suffers from circumstance. Pietersen has not played a red-ball innings since 31 May 2015, when the honour of dismissing him for the final time fell to Zimbabwe's Kyle Jarvis. And yet, were a fanciful return to international cricket to happen, it is England's unstable Test side, rather than its fizzing, youthful white-ball units, that need him most. Meanwhile he is content to tease his detractors by hinting that he may make himself available to South Africa.
The arguments are moot. It is not going to happen. And yet the radiance of his batting offers the dreamers among us a melancholic alternative history. The ECB tries terrifically hard to pretend that he does not exist but it is hard to resist the occasional reverie, to imagine the innings not played, the runs not scored. Pietersen has been the kind of batsman who encourages such flights of fancy.
The techniques of T20 have caught up and gone past him. Such is the fate of the pioneer - they only get to ride so far down the trail. The generation who were kids when they watched his first switch hit back in 2006 are players now, and pulling their own tricks out of the bag. What he still has is a deep - and underestimated - knowledge of his own game and the game around him.
Last year in the BBL, he played an innings while miked up, and as he grew in confidence he began to call the bowler, the ball and the shot he would play. His speed of thought gave him an uncanny insight into the possibilities as they suggested themselves.
Pietersen has been a symbol of cricket's modernity, and in a way the game's current structure has offered him longevity. He is a part-time cricketer, free from the grinding, destructive life that brought down the last England team in which he played. His spiky, abrasive side may or may not still exist in the dressing room, but as a media presence, on the field or in the studio, he can be charmingly goofy as well as avuncular. It's clear that his various franchises regard him as a superior asset.
We can enjoy his final engagements, however long they last. He will go out as he came in, an edge-of-the-seat performer attuned to the big moment, transported by the drama of it all. His latter years have all of the yearning of watching vapour trails in the sky, the last evidence of a journey undertaken at altitude, its destination unknown to those staring up from the ground. It is sad that his international career has been curtailed, because, for Sanga and Tendulkar and Ponting and the other big boys, some of their best and most poignant innings came then.
In appreciating the last of Kevin Pietersen, we appreciate the fleeting nature of cricket itself.