Alison Mitchell speaks to Kevin Pietersen about his latest book
Kevin Pietersen’s new book has not attracted the column inches of his last, but, as a cricket tome, it is by far the better read. Pietersen’s score-settling autobiography was a sensation, pointing a finger at a culture of bullying in the England dressing room, giving derogatory nicknames to those with whom he clashed and all written with such angst that there was little room for any thoughts on the game itself.
In Kevin Pietersen on Cricket we finally learn about the method and mindset that led to his 23 Test hundreds – three of them doubles – in 104 Test appearances, including some truly remarkable innings that stand Pietersen out as one of the most extraordinary players the game has seen.
It was fascinating to interview Pietersen at length for my BBC World Service cricket show Stumped. Interviews with Kevin around the world in the course of my work for Test Match Special and Radio Five Live have not always been straightforward, not least during the ill-fated India tour of 2008 when Pietersen was captain, England were losing and his relationship with coach Peter Moores was unravelling. However, Pietersen was in an engaging mood when we met. Admittedly, he was doing the promotional rounds for his book when we spoke, but a relaxed and tuned-in Pietersen talking about the way he plays the sport that he loves makes for warm, insightful and intriguing conversation.
His choice of best Test innings may be surprising: He passes over the double hundreds scored at Adelaide, Headingley and Lord’s. He dismisses the imperious 186 in Mumbai in 2012, which gave England their chance of victory and is widely considered to be the best Test innings by a foreign batsman on Indian soil. Instead, Pietersen cites his best Test knock as the blistering 151 he scored off 165 balls in Colombo earlier that year.
“Sri Lanka is probably one of the hardest places I’ve played cricket because I sweat so much,” he explains. “I get clammy hands. I sleep in the middle of winter with air-con on. I’m just a hot person so going to Sri Lanka is hard work. I knew that if I was going to score a hundred in Sri Lanka I was going to have to bat quickly.
“On this particular tour I took nine or ten pairs of gloves. I used nine of them in the session-and-a half that I scored the hundred, but I just whacked it. It was a huge thing for me because I never thought I could bat for that long in those conditions. It was 45, 46, 47 degrees and 100 percent humidity. I lost something like 6kgs just in fluids during that innings.
“To do what I did on that day, and the way that I played, and to maintain the aggression for as long as I maintained it, I knew it was my best Test innings.”
That innings also came at a time when Pietersen had scored only 100 runs in his previous eight Test innings abroad. He explains, earnestly, that the Mumbai hundred doesn’t rate as highly because the ball was spinning so extravagantly it gave the bowlers only a tiny margin for error. This neatly sums up the way Pietersen evaluates himself and his batting; the most notable success is achieved against the best, at their best. Moreover, he valued – still values – excelling in the most difficult circumstances of all.
The phrase ‘whack it’ features heavily in the book, which reads in parts like a modern-day manual of how to play the game, breaking it down into chapters on batting, on building an innings, on pressure, on conditions, on limited overs and more. He describes how his ethos has always been a 4-3-2-1 approach to batting. “When the ball’s coming down, first of all I’m looking to score four, then three, then two, then one. If it’s in my area, I’m smashing it. If it’s not, I’m getting off strike. Only as a last resort am I defending.”
The approach explains the heart-in-mouth ‘red bull runs’ he was noted for taking in order to get off the mark. The mentality, he says, helps him get into good positions and puts the bowlers under pressure because they know he is always going to be positive. The caveat, sensibly added by Pietersen, is that whilst this was the right way for him to bat, it is not necessarily the right way for everyone to bat.
When our conversation turns to captaincy, Pietersen shows an element of self-awareness when he admits that he wasn’t ready for captaincy when he was handed the England role in 2008.
“When I was captain I didn’t understand kids or family. I probably didn’t deal with players as well as I could have or should have.
“If I captain now I do it totally differently to the way that I captained England. In terms of players’ techniques, and the way the game of cricket flows – I understood all that. I knew what I was doing. So tactically I was fine, but there is a lot more than tactics that goes into captaining your country. I needed to understand family, kids, homesickness. Now I do. I captained in the Caribbean when Darren Sammy was out of action and I understand the good stuff and the bad stuff. It’s part of mentorship, if you can call it that.”
As much as the book is a welcome relief from the negativity of the Pietersen autobiography (and he is open and effusive in his professional admiration for the likes of Cook, Swann, Anderson and Broad), a couple of thinly veiled digs remain. One of the most memorable, if uncharitable, lines from the first book was Matt Prior (nicknamed ‘Cheese’ in the England dressing room) being described as “a Dairylea triangle thinking he was Brie”. It takes until page 143 and an appraisal of playing spin bowling before the reference comes, albeit in a more complimentary sense. “When it came to playing spinners,” Pietersen writes of Prior, “the Dairylea triangle really was Brie.” He, or his ghostwriter, couldn’t resist.
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This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday November 6, 2015