Kevin Pietersen: I'll take the abuse on tour as a compliment

The Brian Viner Interview: Despite the inevitable special welcome, the batsman is raring to go as he travels back to South Africa, the land where he grew up. He speaks about his failed captaincy, the injury that kept him out of three Ashes Tests – and what lies ahead in the age of the IPL
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The Independent Online

It is more than four years since I first interviewed Kevin Pietersen. That was a couple of months before the 2005 Ashes, when his fame did not yet transcend cricket, and although he had announced his prodigious talent in a one-day series in his native South Africa the previous winter, even cricket fans weren't sure whether he should play at Test level for England. I spent more than a hour with him that day at a cafe in Southampton: he was thoughtful, chatty, and engagingly eager that I should consider the interview worthwhile.

Just over a year later I interviewed him again, at Lord's. By then he was a cricketing superstar. He was also surly, uncommunicative and could barely be bothered to lift his eyes from his mobile phone. He gave anodyne answers to my questions while simultaneously texting, and I went away lamenting this vivid example of sporting fame and burgeoning fortune going to a fellow's head.

But perhaps he was just having a bad hair day, which brings me to my latest encounter with Pietersen, in a photographic studio near Leicester Square, the day he is being unveiled as the new Brylcreem Boy. He has been here having photographs taken since 7.30am. It is now almost 4pm. The portents for an obliging KP are not good. And yet, as I am ushered into his presence and he rises (and rises, and rises, he is a very big man) to greet me with a crushing handshake, he appears cheerful, almost zestful. Maybe because home time beckons at long last.

Anyway, I remind him that we first met when he was a whippersnapper of 24, and venture – it being my turn for the anodyne observation – that a great deal has happened to him since then. "Yeah, it has mate," he says, softly. He has a gentle, almost girlish voice, strikingly at odds with his Olympian physique and his macho deeds. "It most definitely has. Captaincy, ex-captaincy, runs, no runs..."

And injuries, of course. He hasn't played any cricket since the second Ashes Test at Lord's, but was yesterday named in the one-day and Test squads for the tour to South Africa, which starts next month. "I was rushed into the rehab process [following an Achilles operation], which opened the wound. I had a terrible wound on my leg. But there's light at the end of the tunnel now, although I won't rush it if I'm not ready. I still have five or six years left with England, I hope. These days you can play almost 100 Test matches in six years."

But not many of them will be Ashes-winning Test matches. How miserable was he to have missed out at the Oval, where in 2005 his extraordinary knock of 158 from 187 balls sealed Australia's defeat? "To be honest, mate, I try to take the positives out of everything I do. And I walked off after one session at Lord's almost in tears. I felt like I was being stabbed every time I took a step, so I thought 'right, you've had a roller-coaster ride, it's time to take a back seat and recharge your batteries'." He is almost as good at mixing metaphors as he is at smacking sixes, but never mind that; surely it must have been terrible sitting through the remainder of the Ashes as a spectator, especially when it seemed, after the walloping at Headingley, as if England would lose.

"Well, that's why I tried all those injections. I really tried my hardest, but at the end of the day the boys won the Ashes and I had no mixed emotions at all. I was not going to make a sob story out of my injury."

On the whole, any year in which the Ashes are recaptured counts as a terrific year for English cricket. For him, though, it has been something of an annus horribilis, starting in January with the England and Wales Cricket Board removing him as England captain, a consequence of the mutual dislike between him and Peter Moores, the coach. Once Pietersen had effectively engineered the sacking of Moores, he must have assumed that his own grip on the captaincy would strengthen, not that it would be ripped from his grasp?

A pause, and a sigh. "I answered every question in that letter from the ECB about England cricket going forward, and all of a sudden I got a phone call from Hugh Morris [the managing director of England Cricket] saying I was out of a job as well. Mentally, that was very hard, and the West Indies trip [soon afterwards] was ridiculously tough for me. To be out there for 11 weeks after everything that had gone on, with my wife [Jessica Taylor, formerly of the pop group Liberty X] here, doing something I really wanted to support her in [the TV talent contest Dancing on Ice], that was just very hard."

Sympathy for his predicament, I seem to recall, was limited. Did he get much support in the dressing-room? "Myself and Freddie [Andrew Flintoff] lead a different life to the other players in the dressing-room. Away from the field nobody has what Freddie and I have, so it's difficult to speak to somebody who doesn't know."

I invite him to give me some insight into the trials of his life away from the field. "On a daily basis you have to tolerate intrusion," he says. "I married a pretty famous girl, and when we drive through town there's usually a car following us, when I walk out of my front door in Chelsea there's six guys waiting for me. Jess and I don't like red-carpet things, we'd rather be at home with a takeaway, so the attention is hard to deal with, it makes you feel on edge. And I know Freddie gets hassled a lot, too."

I don't suppose they unburden themselves much on each other, though; they reportedly don't get on too well, not that either ever confirms this. "Mate, we get on fine," says Pietersen, predictably enough. "I did actually speak to him about a lot of stuff. But to get total trust and support I turn to my family and my best mates."

For a man of Pietersen's unwavering self-belief, and for that matter his Natal background, being stripped of the England captaincy was at least as devastating as being given it was flattering. The more so, he tells me, because he felt he was growing into the job nicely.

"It was frustrating. I put into writing all my suggestions, as I was asked to, and [Andrew] Strauss has got the benefit of all that. I've just had to watch it unfold this summer, which has been extremely hard for me, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise for me to be injured and away from everything so I could try to get my hunger back, because it certainly was dwindling."

In other words, he was nursing a grievance this summer no less than a bad leg. I ask him to be more specific about the ways in which Strauss has reaped the benefits of his suggestions to the ECB. "He has a coach he can work with. I never had that. I didn't have the power or authority to run the team. I never had that as England captain."

He would have been delighted, he adds, to have lived on as captain with Andy Flower, who succeeded Moores, as coach. "I had my reservations about Andy when he was second-in-command, but I promise you, now he's doing such a fantastic job. I speak to him regularly, I ring him about stuff, and he's such a good listener."

Maybe his captaincy was always doomed, I venture provocatively, if with a sweetener, on the basis that it's rarely a good idea to make the best player the skipper. "Not if it affects the way you perform," he replies equably, "but I'd like to see my stats when I was captain. I probably averaged 60 or 70. No, I loved it, I enjoyed it, but now I leave it to Strauss, who's doing such a great job." Can he envisage any circumstances in which he might one day regain the captaincy? "No, mentally I've left it. I respect Strauss too much to talk about the captaincy."

Then let's talk about the Strauss-led tour to South Africa, for which we all pray he will be fit. "Yeah, I love playing South Africa for obvious reasons, and I haven't played Test cricket there, so I really want to do that, and be part of a team that builds on the momentum of winning the Ashes."

Does he anticipate a hostile reception when, wherever it might be, he strides out for the first time? After all, in 2005 he was abused loudly and mercilessly. He smiles. "Well, Strauss is South African, [Matt] Prior is South African, so is Jonathan Trott, so it won't just be me." But he is the man those Afrikaaners in particular love to hate, isn't he? "Yeah, but I take that as a compliment, the same as Ricky Ponting does when he comes here. I enjoy it, actually. But you're right, in 2005 it was extremely abusive, and my mum and dad were very upset. Especially my mum. That doesn't bring fond memories, even though I scored three hundreds and was man of the series. But I don't expect it to be as bad this time. I think people in South Africa respect me now for what I've done."

And respect is due to him as the new Brylcreem Boy, to boot. Hair, it suddenly occurs to me, has loomed particularly large in Pietersen's career. In fact, no matter how neat he keeps it, he will forever be associated with the notorious "dead-skunk" stripe. "Yeah, what on earth was I doing? That was so stupid. But it was part of growing up. And now I'm contractually bound to keep a short back and sides."

Thank goodness for that. And since he mentions contracts, what are the prospects of him doing a Freddie and going freelance? "The realism now," he says carefully, "is that we have the IPL, and central contracts are not everything they're written up to be, so it's a case of waiting to see what happens. But I'm not giving up playing for England. I have some real big goals with England. I want to become the leading Test run scorer, I want to finish with 25 to 30 Test match hundreds, and I want home and away Test match hundreds against Sri Lanka and South Africa, which are the only two I haven't got." Which of us would bet more than a tube of Brylcreem against the probability that, a few months from now, only Sri Lanka will remain?

Kevin Pietersen is the Brylcreem Boy and face of the new Brylcreem product range