Oh dear, we are talking about Kevin, again. The charismatic leviathan with all the shots and limitless self-regard is at the heart of the debate about the immediate future of English cricket, placed there by coach Andy Flower, who has linked Pietersen’s fate indelibly to his own. Are you for or against? It’s a yes/no ballot, a tick for Flower is a cross for Pietersen, and vice versa. It appears England are either looking for a new coach or a new man to bat at No 4.
If Flower was browsing the web after he laid his cards on the table to Paul Downton, the new managing director of English cricket, he won’t be optimistic. All creatures great and small from former captains Michael Vaughan and Alec Stewart to foot soldiers like Phil Tufnell, Steve Harmison and Simon Hughes, had KP in their teams to face Sri Lanka in the summer.
Pietersen’s apologists continue to invest in a talent that runs deep and a stack of runs bettered by only two players in the history of the English game. Less important for them is a philosophy and attitude diametrically opposed to that of the England head coach and one that puts the interests of the individual before the team.
Not even the death march across the Australian summer, during which England surrendered the Ashes 5-0 in a series of mountainous defeats, diverted Pietersen from the “my way” code.
Whatever the circumstances, KP insists there will be no change in the way he sees the world. He is way above adapting his game to the needs of mortals when the situation turns dire. It is the way he is. You can’t meddle with genius. Meanwhile, the fielder at midwicket rubs his hands.
Clearly Flower has no truck with Pietersen’s lofty ideals. Give him a Chris Rogers any hour of the day. The late-developing Australian opener is a short, short-sighted, carrot-topped throwback to the days when batsmen went fore and aft presenting a bat as straight as a Roman road, an anti-freestyler, who would sooner walk into the open jaws of a saltwater crocodile than sell his wicket cheaply with a flick to leg.
Rogers is focused only on the balls he can hit in the service of Australia. Pietersen believes any ball is hit-able in the cause of his own deification. It was fitting and instructive to see the one-dimensional, unheralded scuffler raise his bat, or rather smash it into his pads, after posting the century that saw Australia home by another stonking margin with a day and a half of the Boxing Day Test to spare.
Those who insist Pietersen is England’s best player make an abstract case that bears little relation to the present reality. England’s best player averaged fewer than 30 in the Ashes debacle. It is no argument to venture that he scored more runs than any other English batsman. If Pietersen is the guru his defenders claim him to be then he has to make a difference. In Australia he made none.
Indeed, Pietersen’s estranged relationship with the coach is emerging as a key factor in the failure of England to muster any kind of resistance in Australia. By definition any divisions render unity impossible.
No one doubts the importance of a talismanic figure. Roy Keane would never claim to have been the greatest player in the world but Manchester United were a far better team with him in the side than without. It was not Keane’s range and technique that made the difference necessarily, but the spirit and commitment he engendered in others. He led, the others followed.
Mitchell Johnson performed this role for Australia. Not only did he give Australia a strike weapon England could not match, the mere sight of the moustachioed lothario taking the pitch reduced the opposition to a heap lesser than the sum of their parts.
Pietersen’s political antennae have been twitching like the blazes. As stories of unrest emerged, he tweeted his commitment to the England team and retweeted a post by Vaughan linking to a newspaper column in which he made the case for rebuilding the team with Pietersen given an enhanced role as vice captain, perhaps, to Alastair Cook.
Again this relies absolutely on the idea that Pietersen is the man he was, that he remains capable of delivering the match-winning innings like no other, the player of Ashes glory in 2005 and 2009, of the 2012 tour to India.
But what if that player is no more? The Pietersen who frittered away his innings in Australia with irresponsible shots when, to borrow from the great John Updike, he should have given the mundane its beautiful due, is utterly counter-productive.
The England cricket team has always been a vehicle for Pietersen to parade his gifts rather than a cause for which to fight. When the chips are down against a fearsome foe, you need to know the men you lead are right behind you. Flower does not believe in Pietersen any more. The question is, do England?
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