(Photo: Getty Images)
By Derek Pringle
As goodbyes go it was a bit like the man himself – a contradiction. On the face of it, Kevin Pietersen’s withdrawal from all things cricket was a quiet farewell to arms, announced without hyperbole in fewer than 140 characters. Yet nothing is measured when you have 3.6 million Twitter followers and news of his retirement whizzed round the world quicker than it took for one of his switch-hits to reach the boundary.
As a person, Pietersen split opinion more than just about any other player in cricket. But as a batsman, most were united that he was the best England had seen, if not of all time, then certainly since the two Gs – Gower and Gooch.
He was definitely the most watchable cricketer of his era and provided three of England’s finest innings during it, though Michael Vaughan produced a couple against the Aussies that would run a couple of them close. Not, though, the 186 against India in Mumbai in 2012, which, to my mind, ranks second only to Graham Gooch’s unbeaten 154 at Headingley against the West Indies in 1991 as the greatest Test innings I have seen by an England player.
It was a gem, and timed to perfection. Thumped in the first Test of that series, most feared the worst when India’s captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, gleefully announced that the pitch for the second, at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, would be a “rank” turner. He was not kidding. The ball spun sharply from the start and once India had won the toss, batted, and made 327, nearly everyone expected a quick conclusion with the home side going 2-0 up.
It was a pig of a pitch for someone like Pietersen, who liked to take the ball early. But stolidly assisted by his captain Alastair Cook, who scored a fine hundred of his own, he adjusted his approach without too much compromise to make a mockery of the sharp turn.
Pietersen’s aggression, always a feature of his game, showed how brittle the Indian spinners could be when pressure was applied, and he put them under heavy manners there. One six over extra cover, off left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, broke their spirit and turned them into nervous nellies.
After that it was not just chance that India’s tweakers ended up bowling him more ‘four’ balls than Cook.
Having only just returned to the team after being dropped for insubordination towards previous captain, Andrew Strauss (the infamous Textgate incident with South Africa), KP would have been under added pressure to succeed.
Yet, as a player he used adversity to motivate himself better than any of his contemporaries. And so it came to pass once more with Mumbai’s magnum opus, which helped England secure a rare series win in India.
Some believe his 158 in England’s second innings against Australia at the Oval in 2005 to be his defining innings. Given it was his debut series and it prevented Australia from retaining the urn after 16-years of ownership, it was certainly special.
But he was dropped early on by Shane Warne at slip, a catch that should have been taken, which removes a lot of gloss when considering absolutes like best innings.
For such a commanding batsman when set, he was a remarkably nervous and uncertain starter.
His ‘Red Bull run’, so named because having drunk the stuff while waiting to bat he often took a risky single to get off the mark that left him and his batting partner lunging for the crease, became a cliche so often did it occur.
His various hairdos, the skunk stripe of that first Ashes series springs to mind, also suggested a man uncertain of how to present himself to the public when not at the crease. Certainly he gave the impression of being gauche socially, but then sportsmen tend to be answerable to few outside their peer group.
His Press conferences, too, were bizarre and almost as entertaining as his innings, with crazy pronouncements and disingenuous humility juxtaposed, all delivered in a Frank Spencer sing-song albeit with a twang of the veldt.
I can recall his first ‘Presser’ at Harare Sports Club in 2004, prior to his one-day debut for England. The curious switching between preening braggadocio and meek modesty reminded me of Andy Caddick, another colonial who’d qualified for England. Yet it more or less became a template for KP, with the modest bits gradually taking a back seat.
To those with what might be termed British values, such as modesty and fair play, someone like Pietersen was always going to cause friction. The challenge, for those running teams, is to incorporate them without letting it compromise the whole project, something that more or less happened for the first eight years of Pietersen’s England career.
Yet, if there is one thing even the most liberal Brit won’t abide, it is treachery towards a leader, something Pietersen was party to not just once but twice, leaving the ECB with no choice than to part company with him following England’s ill-fated Ashes tour of 2013/14.
For someone who gave us the switch hit, the flamingo, as well as several of the finest innings in modern times, it seemed the one thing he could not give was his undivided cooperation to coach and captain, something all teams rely on to function.
Parting company with England allowed him to maximise his T20 fees in the Indian Premier League, the Big Bash, the Pakistan Super League and the Caribbean Premier League, and occasionally in the T20 Blast for Surrey. But while he has undoubtedly enriched himself financially, it is not where cricketing legacies are made, at least not yet.
Instead, it is international cricket where top players like him are remembered and Pietersen left that world with his ambitions only part realised, and with English cricket split as to whether he was victim or villain.
Still, he has a new motivation in ‘Save the Rhino’, a calling for which he has my full support and admiration. If he succeeds, and there are only 30,000 remaining in the wild, he will be a true hero of mine.