Kingpin or Prima donna? I'm a heck of a team player, insists Pietersen
England's best batsman is undergoing trial by insinuation - and is responding in typical style
England knew exactly what they were getting with Kevin Pietersen. They were getting an abrasive man who recognised his own worth, a man who thought a considerable amount about himself, yet wanted desperately to be liked, who had a tendency to say the wrong thing, and the right thing the wrong way. They also knew he was capable of scoring a huge amount of runs.
In the wake of the shoddy defeat in the Fourth Test, the tourists' leading batsman has been heavily scrutinised. There were times during the match when, if he was trying, it was purely on his terms. He was noticed at least twice chasing balls with the enthusiasm of Bertie Wooster being expected to make his own breakfast. Sent to the outfield, he could be seen craning his neck in a kind of mock astonishment that was all too real to his colleagues.
Then, sometime last week, he decided that he ought to bat at four instead of five, where he had insisted on being until then, and was immediately accommodated. He was out to his fourth ball, not really looking as if he wanted to be there.
For much of the match, Pietersen's body language could be interpreted thus: "Look, you useless set of deadbeats, I'm fed up doing it all." And nobody would have been entirely surprised had it been revealed that he had said something similar in the dressing room.
Such has been the innuendo that Pietersen emerged yesterday to restate his credentials not only as a team man, but the model team man. "It does hurt when people say that, because you know I don't like losing and I will do anything to win for England and for the nation. I'm a heck of a team player, a massive team player. If I wasn't I would be happy that I have got 420 runs at 60. I am the first one to give advice, you see me at training sessions. I'm helping out Monty [Panesar] at the moment. I'll work with anybody."
The fact that he remembered to mention his personal statistics was merely proof that he knows how good he is. Not that it mattered. Pietersen's ire was particularly raised by the studied, clinical doubts cast on his team ethos by Australia's coach John Buchanan.
Sometimes cerebral, sometimes fanciful, Buchanan said: "He certainly talks of himself as a team player. I personally don't see any evidence of that but I'm not in their dressing room. I do look at him on the field quite a bit and he seems to distance himself quite a bit from the team, just in where he fields."
While recognising that it might be another Australian ploy, Pietersen seemed genuinely outraged by such a slur. "Buchanan's comments are just ridiculous. I don't know where he has got that from. I don't really see a case or a cause for getting into a slanging match with the coach of Australia, he's probably just trying to target me. He's retiring after the World Cup and that's probably good for Australia and good for the game."
It is true that Australia are making Pietersen a target but then he may be making himself an easy one. They began this series sledging him as "The Ego" but have now changed that, borrowing the insulting sobriquet used to describe the American golfer, Phil Mickelson, "Figjam", an acronym which stands for "Fuck, I'm good, just ask me".
Pietersen's robust defence of himself was understandable, but his change to No 4 in the order reflects well on nobody. According to the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, Pietersen had gone to him and said that he wanted to bat at four because he was batting with the tail a lot. Previously, he had resisted the move. "It has been playing on my mind for a while," said Pietersen. "I have been asked where I felt comfortable and happy, and five was where I did. Once I felt comfortable in my head about four I said 'I can give it a go now', I am happy as long as we considered Paul Collingwood and what is good for the team.
"It's different because when you walk off the field you have to put your pads on. It was as if I just flicked a switch. One morning I woke up and thought, right, I can go here." Of course, Pietersen has already played 17 innings at four for an average of 50.94 compared to his 22 at 53.75 at five. Comfort is relative.
No other player would be allowed such dispensation and to make the change mid-match was folly. Pietersen will hardly be the object of fewer prying eyes after this episode.
He also claimed that his relationship with Andrew Flintoff is sound. "Him, me, his missus and my missus were in the bar until 2am, 3am on his birthday having a great night. I don't understand where any of this is from." On the field they do not look especially close buddies and it sounds as if they both need Michael Vaughan to tell them to get to bed earlier.
Pietersen is important, almost crucial to England. Even as a loose cannon he can become one of the game's greats but the team have to win. Buchanan said: "I wonder if criticism of him is because he's different. Difference is an important part of the make-up of a side. It's how that difference is managed."
If the difference is not managed better, the differences between Pietersen and the team will grow into a chasm.
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