KP is back. But will he get a hero's welcome?
As England's biggest talent (and ego) arrives in South Africa, Stephen Brenkley gauges the mood of the dressing room, from a side that won the Ashes without him
The Brylcreem Boy flies in today. It will not quite be the return of the conquering hero. Kevin Pietersen will arrive largely unheralded at OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg – though should his latest sponsors insist upon slicked-down hair it may may well turn a few heads – to be met by a liaison officer and whisked to the England team's hotel.
There, apart from a visit or two to the gym to enhance his recently reacquired fitness (don't spoil the hair Kev), he will spend the next day kicking his heels waiting for his colleagues to arrive from their business in Bloemfontein. When team and star player are eventually reunited he may find that things have changed, that in his absence they have moved on.
England still need Pietersen's runs and his outrageous methods of making them but in the last four months the team have demonstrated that they can do without him. It may be to the ultimate benefit of both parties. The rest of the side now recognise they can truly perform and have a terracotta urn containing the Ashes and a Champions Trophy semi-final place to prove it.
Pietersen himself may feel somewhat unburdened and although he has always paid generous lip service to the team ethos in the past, there has always been the suspicion – because it was based on reality – that if he did not do it they might not. Equally some players are transformed by Pietersen at the other end and Paul Collingwood, for instance, looks a better batsman with Pietersen around.
As the off-spinning all-rounder Graeme Swann put it yesterday: "It's exciting for us that he's coming back, and, you never know, he might have to fight for his place." Swann was being typically jocular but it was a joke imbued with a certain seriousness. The top-of-the-bill act has not been indispensable.
Swann, who has visibly grown into an international cricketer of stature while Pietersen has been away, said: "Kev's Kev, he's a massive personality and a massive player. He's got to be good for the team from a playing perspective because he is one of the best players in the world.
"I don't think this squad is sitting there desperately hoping that other people turn up because we're all getting on well, we've got a really positive outlook, and we've had some really good performances. So Kev is just going to add to that, I don't think it's going to change it."
There is no question that he will immediately reclaim his places in the one-day and Test sides. This is a man who averages closer to 50 than 40 in two forms of the game – Tests and one-day internationals – and is the leading run scorer in Twenty20. Only two England players have scored more runs after 54 Test matches than Pietersen and they were Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton, legends of the game. Sometimes statistics tell far from the whole story, of course, and Pietersen will soon know there is more to life in a cricket dressing room than the supply of runs. It is about friendship and the team.
South Africa, the land of his birth, is where it all started for him just over four years ago. Thrust into the one-day series for which England were hopelessly ill-equipped, he scored three hundreds and a 75 in his five matches in front of hostile crowds and never looked back.
This will again be a complicated tour for him. Until January this year he was captain of this team and the decision to remove him from office after the schism between himself and coach Peter Moores hurt deeply. He concealed his bitterness well and went back to the ranks. If anything, he tried a wee bit too hard.
His return has provoked claims that he may not be the batsman he was, and that there were signs of decline before the Achilles injury which forced him to miss the last three Ashes Tests and 12 one-day matches. It is said that bowlers had at last found his vulnerability around off stump and it is true that he was not quite scoring with the unfettered freedom of yore. But it was still advisable to get him early or pay the full price and his overall figures stood up remarkably well. Any diminution of powers may be explained entirely by the debilitating effects of his chronic injury.
For months, almost from the first week of the Caribbean tour last January, he played in discomfort leading to pain. Injection followed injection and he declared his intention to play a full part in the Ashes series – a jolly good thing, it seemed at the time, because without him there seemed no way that England could prevail.
By the end of the second Test at Lord's against Australia it was perfectly obvious that he was in no fit state to continue. He limped out of the series and then his return was further delayed by an infection in the wound left by surgery. This has been a worrying time – he had played 54 consecutive Tests since his 2005 debut against Australia and is unaccustomed to being out of either crease or limelight.
It has taken until now for him to regain his fitness and so curtailed has that been that he did not have a bat in his hand again until last week, and was not able to leave with the rest of the squad 10 days ago. England, he may discover, are a different proposition. He might just have to readjust his dressing room settings.
As Swann said: "Whenever you lose one or two big players everyone else has got to step up to the plate and perform. Last summer they did. We can't be reliant on one or two players, it's unhealthy for the team, it's unhealthy for English cricket, and thankfully at the minute everyone is excelling in their own respective areas which is a more healthy state to be in."
There is the added challenge for Pietersen of playing in South Africa. Infamously, he left KwaZulu Natal for Nottinghamshire largely in protest at the quota system which positively promoted the prospects of black cricketers who had been previously disenfranchised in every sense.
He has, as they say, paid his dues to England since qualifying to play over four years ago with his prodigious batting contributions.
The feeling is that the South African crowds, fervently patriotic but sports mad, will have been won over and will respect his achievements. But the addition of Jonathan Trott, also South African-born, to the England team has muddied the waters again.
Morne Morkel, the exciting fast bowler, who will play for South Africa A in the warm-up Twenty20 match in Bloemfontein today and may well reclaim his Test place in the forthcoming series, said: "I think there are mixed feelings about the whole thing. From our point of view it's a career choice and well done to them for achieving England colours.
"I think it's tough for them touring South Africa and playing in front of their home crowds but it all adds to the fun of the game. There will be pressure on them."
Pietersen, in other words, may receive more barracking than he bargained for. Whatever the reception, he will be ready. He has always had goals and his fierce ambition will not have been reduced but heightened by his enforced break.
England will be different, Pietersen will be different and if everybody keeps their hair on, Brylcreemed or not, the tourists may prosper.
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