My youngest boy’s Kevin Pietersen bat is still in the garage. The yellow grip is perished now and the toe has split but it’s there for posterity, having carted a lot of straight drives over the shed roof and into next door’s. There is going to be a lot of understandable hate for Pietersen this week – as he cleaves English cricket again with his latest autobiography, dishing the dirt on Alastair Cook, Andy Flower and Peter Moores. But in this household like countless others, there has been a need for a personality to make up for cricket’s diminishing relevance to the new generation. Pietersen has been that man.
More’s the pity that it had to be him. An England team which has vanished for many without access to subscription TV was crying out for a Shane Warne of its own but instead it got a self-obsessed, socially dysfunctional sportsman, whose latest ghostwritten story of victimhood published this week maintains the pattern of a 13-year English career in which it always has to be about him. Geraint Jones tells a very good story about an exchange the two of them once had when they were at the crease together. Jones approached his partner between overs and started to speak. “Can’t talk now buddy… too pumped,” Pietersen replied.
No one should be fooled about the PR choreography surrounding the launch of the book which, beyond a detailed characterisation of Flower as a dismally controlling figure and of Matt Prior as a back-stabber, may not actually live up to the publicity. You’ll be hearing a lot from Pietersen ahead of Thursday’s book launch, but last week’s announcement of the KP24 Foundation – to be launched in Dubai on 6 November to support underprivileged children worldwide – was the start of the narrative shaping. We’re being invited to consider him as the ostracised good guy.
Pietersen is not the kind of individual you’re most likely to see at a benefit match. The players he has thrown himself into helping develop at Surrey are those in whom he sees some of himself: Jason Roy for example. He could be very good for English cricket but the game will be kept waiting for that to happen.
There are always reasons for a socially illiterate weirdness like his and for an understanding of it, the only book you will be needing to read this week is the excellent On Pietersen, by Simon Wilde of The Sunday Times. It is a convincing, part-Freudian picture Wilde paints of Pietersen – the middle-class boy from Pietermaritzburg, born to an English mother and a God-fearing, buttoned-up Dutch-born Afrikaner who demanded conformity; schooled as a day boy at Maritzburg College, which was renowned for producing good, white sportsmen. It wasn’t the injustice of South African cricket’s racial quota system that drove Pietersen to seek a career in England, as he has always claimed, but the Kwa-Zulu Natal team’s preferment of a player of Indian extraction who was quite simply better than him. Pietersen, in his self-absorption, could never admit the fact.
The player who arrived here was written through with the same insecurities which would be behind the subsequent tantrums. When he had scored 61 in short order to secure victory for Hampshire in his first Championship match for them, he took his pads off and sat between Warne and Alan Mullally at Hove. “Hey Al. I’m pretty good, aren’t I?” he told Mullaly. Mullaly saw through the veneer. “Kev had his insecurities, perhaps about not being born in this country, and he overcame that with arrogance and brashness,” he reflected. “I can remember thinking at the time it was just him wanting to be loved and being insecure.”
Wilde also relates the scene when Pietersen launched his first autobiography in 2006, having brought along his parents, two brothers and a sister-in-law, to whom he incessantly looked over – “like a boy in a nativity play,” as one writer described it at the time.
Pietersen’s relationships in the Ashes dressing rooms also reveal more than this week’s self-serving ghostwritten words will do. He always gravitated towards the comparative outsiders, and shied away from the predominant cliques of which Graeme Swann was at the centre. He couldn’t cope with the parody Twitter account, “@KPGenius” set up by a friend of Stuart Broad’s and which several of the England players followed.
Wilde’s book has a depth which charts the positives too, though we can only imagine how it might have been if English cricket had found celebrity of the Warne variety. There’s an especially memorable section in Adam Gilchrist’s autobiography True Colours in which Gilchrist describes how he was given the Australia vice-captaincy after Warne had been deposed because of The News of the World’s kiss and tell, revealing he’d sent lewd messages to an English nurse. Gilchrist feared his ensuing meeting with Warne – who was the better vice-captain – but need not have. “I knew that Warnie was heartbroken, in a way, about his whole captaincy ambitions but to his credit he never white-anted or challenged me,” Gilchrist wrote. “I never felt that he held it against me.”
You flinch at the thought of how Pietersen would have responded to what Warne was asked to accept that day. Yet even in the face all that, the memory of the moments when Pietersen’s cricket talked for him will always remain for the generation that grew up with them. Some of my oldest friends in sport, at the Chirk CC side, near Wrexham, will tell you that Pietersen mattered a lot whilst they tried – with increasing difficulty - to persuade 14-year-olds to give up their Saturdays to drive nearly two hours across North Wales for some Saturday league games.
Those teenagers will tell you about Pietersen’s 158 at The Oval. They’ll discuss his slow start building to an imperious 202 not-out, at in 2012, in the game that was supposed to Sachin Tendulkar’s swansong but ended up taking England top of the world rankings. All these and others concluded with him standing, drenched in the acclaim which obsessed him; arms out wide, helmet in left hand, bat in right. The grip was always that trademark yellow – just like my boy’s.Reuse content