Kevin Pietersen: One-day wonder prepares for test of staying power

England's latest batting sensation survived a baptism of fire in his native South Africa, but faces a more daunting burden of expectation in the build-up to the Ashes series
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Not for the first time, one of the great white hopes of English cricket is a young man raised under the African sun. But the name Graeme Hick should offer pause for thought to those getting over-excited about the 24-year-old Kevin Pietersen, who scored three thrilling one-day centuries during England's winter tour of South Africa. At Test level, Hick's performances rarely matched his promise. And already there are gloomy suggestions that Pietersen too might buckle beneath a huge burden of expectation; at any rate, he has not started the English summer like a man who is going to tear the Aussies apart.

Not for the first time, one of the great white hopes of English cricket is a young man raised under the African sun. But the name Graeme Hick should offer pause for thought to those getting over-excited about the 24-year-old Kevin Pietersen, who scored three thrilling one-day centuries during England's winter tour of South Africa. At Test level, Hick's performances rarely matched his promise. And already there are gloomy suggestions that Pietersen too might buckle beneath a huge burden of expectation; at any rate, he has not started the English summer like a man who is going to tear the Aussies apart.

On the other hand, form is temporary, class is permanent, and with a bat in his hand Pietersen is demonstrably one of the classiest acts around, averaging well over 50 in first-class cricket, despite a 10-ball duck for Hampshire against Middlesex on Friday. The big question is, having so dramatically made his mark in international one-day cricket, is he ready to do the same in Test matches?

"I think so," he says, a rare expression of equivocation from a man who, whatever else he learnt while growing up in Durban, did not learn to beat about the bush.

We arrive at the same time at a waterfront bar across the road from his apartment in Southampton, where we have arranged to meet. If his considerable height and the graceful way he moves were to leave any doubt that this is a gilded, 21st century professional sportsman, then the diamond twinkling from each earlobe confirms it.

"Yeah, me and Goughy [Darren Gough] had them done in South Africa," he says brightly, when I cheekily venture that Len Hutton never had to worry about taking his earrings out before striding to the crease. "And Warney's got them too."

Warney - Shane Warne - is not only Pietersen's captain at Hampshire, he has also become a close friend and mentor.

"He's an absolute champion of a guy and after I've finished talking to you I'm going straight round to his place, because he's got all his equipment from Australia rocking up and I'm going to help him move things around. You know, I went to South Africa last winter as a county player and came back as an international, with people talking about me as a wonder boy.

"That's just nonsense, but it's been such a relief having someone to talk to who's experienced it all himself. Warney has done everything. He's earned his millions, he's had a ban, he's been caught doing this or that, and he's got 583 Test wickets. In fact he's nicknamed me '600' because he wants me as his 600th Test wicket."

But Pietersen has to be selected before he can become Warne's 600th Test victim, or not. I wonder, albeit somewhat pointlessly, whether it troubles him that he has acquired all his international success in conditions familiar to him since boyhood, on quicker, bouncier African wickets, without the swinging and seaming that English conditions produce?

"That's true," he says cheerfully, "but it was my four years in county cricket, averaging 55, that gained me international status in the first place. Playing on English wickets has tightened my defences, made me a better player, which is why I get on those wickets back in South Africa and it's 'happy birthday'."

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that Ian Bell and Robert Key, to name but two, are ahead of him on current form. "They've been playing well for their counties and I've sent them both messages congratulating them. It doesn't bother me at all if they score hundreds. I'm pleased for them. I just need to concentrate on my own game."

Which he has been doing relentlessly. "Against Sussex I got 0 and 61, and the 0 was lbw. I've looked at DVDs of me playing in South Africa and noted that I got in front of the wickets a lot. I was definitely an lbw candidate. So I have worked hard on that every single day, and I haven't been hit on the pads since. But it takes time to change technique."

Pietersen's vulnerability in front of the stumps derives from one of his great strengths; his ability to force even balls outside his off-stump through the leg-side. In which respect, he is in good company.

"Mark Waugh made an entire career out of hitting through the on-side," he says. "But saying that, I just got off the phone from Greg Matthews, the Australian spinner, who saw me three years ago playing first-grade in Sydney, and was talking to me about how I batted in South Africa. He told me that my triggers are a bit too big, meaning my foot movement. So it's a case of knuckling down to sort myself out."

Few doubt that Pietersen has the strength of character to knuckle down. After all, as tests of character go, he has already overcome one of the fiercest that sport has to offer; keeping his focus in the midst of intense, almost homicidal hostility. That was the backdrop when he first took the field as an England player in South Africa, for a one-day international in Johannesburg.

"It was daunting," he recalls. "Cutthroat stuff. The stuff I copped at the Wanderers that day, oh my gosh. The place is like a colosseum anyway, and if I gave you a pound for every swear word I was called, you'd be a millionaire. At first I was in the inner ring, where I caught Herschelle Gibbs, then Vaughany [Michael Vaughan] decided to drop me down to the boundary, where all the proper Afrikaaners were, drinking beer. I was there for about 25 overs, with stuff being thrown at me. It was frightening. People were going hysterical.

"When I walked out to bat we were 20 for 3 and Vaughany was at the other end. I stood right next to him but could hardly hear what he was saying because of the abuse going on. There was a massive clap up to the first ball I faced, from Andre Nel, and when I played and missed the crowd just went berserk. But Vaughany was amazing, I will respect him for the rest of his life. He kept telling me just to concentrate on that white ball, and in the end I got 22 not out, and we won the match. That knock made me enjoy international cricket."

As for the South African players, he says it was the only the captain, Graeme Smith, who joined in the abuse.

"But he has no wit. He just made a load of ridiculous comments. I have a sticker on my bat and he said, 'How much did you pay yourself for that sticker?' That sort of thing. I don't think he's too intelligent, actually. People like Pollock and Kallis were fine, it was just Smith. And I'd never even spoken to him before in my life. But I know a lot of people who have no time for him, including his own players."

Happily, Pietersen had overcome most of the hostility by the time he completed his third one-day century.

"I got a standing ovation from everyone in the ground, which was fantastic. My mum had cried because of all the abuse when I walked out at Wanderers and she was crying again when I got a standing ovation at Centurion."

His original crime, in the eyes of many South Africans, had been not only to turn his back on the country of his birth, but to proclaim quite so boldly his reason for doing so: South African cricket's racial quota system, which had limited his opportunities when he was a young player trying to establish himself in the Natal side.

"I agree on merit selection," he explains. "I'm not a racist. I'd be happy to see 11 black guys in any cricket team, with a black coach, if they were all selected on merit. Georgie Gregan is captain of the Australian rugby team, and that's right, because he's one of their best players. My friend Uzman Afzaal played cricket for England because he was one of the best 11 players at the time. But if England were South Africa, they would have to play three players of colour. And every domestic side here would have to have four or even five. I can't stand that."

Since Pietersen had a British passport through his English-born mother, it was not too difficult for him to change allegiance. During England's match against Natal on a previous tour of South Africa he had sounded out the then captain Nasser Hussain. Hussain encouraged him to move to England, and Pietersen's compatriot Clive Rice eventually facilitated a move to Nottinghamshire. But in the meantime, the top brass in South African cricket had begun to realise what they might be losing.

"Dr Ali Bacher flew me to his office in Johannesburg and my dad and I talked to him for an hour. But nothing he said made sense. Afterwards I said to my dad, 'I'm leaving', and he said, 'Damn right you're leaving'. So I came here to play for Notts. I really enjoyed that but after a while I was treading water there, so I joined Hampshire. I love it here. The club's so professional. And now I look at South Africa just as a place to see my mum and dad and have a cheap holiday. I love England."

It has been suggested in some quarters that perhaps Pietersen overdoes his new-found passion for England (which does not, incidentally, extend to our climate. "We played up in Shropshire the other day and oh my gosh, I was freezing.")

He defends himself by insisting that he is naturally demonstrative, and besides, it is 100 per cent genuine. "I kissed my helmet, so what? That's not because I feel I have to show people how loyal I am, The people in the dressing-room, they know already how much I love playing for England. And if I do get the chance to play in the Ashes then I don't care if I bat at No 11 and field at third man, or underneath a helmet."

Which brings us back to Warne. I ask him to imagine himself taking guard against the great man at Lord's. Of course, he has imagined it already.

"I watch him very carefully - how he gets them out, how he talks to our keeper, Nick Pothas - and I hope that might stand me and England in good stead. What's amazing about him is the control he has in his variation. I see him bowl six different balls and land every one in the same area. The answer is to take the attack to him. I faced Mushtaq a couple of weeks ago and nailed him all over the park, but then he's not as good as Warney.

"Mushtaq gets me out eventually but he gets me out caught somewhere on the boundary. Warney's different, the best bowler who ever played the game, and he's a huge cog in that Australian side.

"But I don't think I'd feel tension in that situation. I'd probably start laughing. And Warney has already said that he wouldn't give me any stick. If I play he says he hopes I score 1,000 runs and Australia win the Ashes. He also says that he thinks the best way for England to beat them is by blooding some young players who aren't brainwashed. He says he knows he'll knock Graham Thorpe over, for instance, and that maybe England should choose some batters who aren't used to being dominated by Australia."

That might make sense, I say. "Yeah," says Pietersen, wistfully. "But Warney's not an England selector, is he?"

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