Had things worked out differently, Kevin Pietersen could be spending his third summer on the English cricket circuit playing not for Nottinghamshire, where his destructive talents with the bat have earned him the kind of bar-emptying reputation that the young Graeme Hick possessed, but for the touring South Africans.
Born in the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, the third of four brothers in a sporting family, 23-year-old Pietersen's dreams were like those of any young boy. "In South Africa they give you a cricket bat as soon as you can walk and I wanted to play for my country as much as any kid," he said.
He made the Natal state side when he was 17 and looked certain to be called into the national team before many more years had passed. Today, however, while still looking ahead to an international career, his ambitions are somewhat different. Indeed, during England's meetings with South Africa this summer, Pietersen's allegiance is unambiguously in the other camp. Nothing, he says, would please him more than to see the country of his birth soundly thrashed.
The reason is simple. Three years ago, looking to make further progress with the renamed KwaZulu-Natal, he learned that South Africa's contentious quota system, which was introduced to accelerate the development of non-white cricketers in the post-apartheid republic, was likely to limit his opportunities. Already opposed in principle to quotas, he took the momentous decision to quit South Africa and seek not only a new career but a new nationality in England.
He claims not to be bitter, but there is anger in his voice when he retells the story. "In effect, South African cricket threw me out," Pietersen said. "Under the quota system, every state side had to include four players of colour. Three years ago, they signed a coloured player who, like me, bowled spin.
"I knew that Natal would not play two spinners, so the coloured player would always have an advantage, regardless of ability. I firmly believe teams should be selected on merit alone and I was faced with a situation where my opportunities would be limited for other reasons."
He joined Nottinghamshire after playing league cricket in Birmingham, where an interview in a local newspaper revealed that, because his mother is British, he would not be regarded as an overseas player in domestic cricket. That alerted Derbyshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, as well as Nottinghamshire but the Trent Bridge club, then coached by former South African captain Clive Rice, won the day.
Now Pietersen sees his future playing for England, an ambition that was boosted recently by his inclusion in the provisional list of players to go to the ECB's Academy this winter. A British passport holder and British citizen, by the end of next season he will complete the four-year qualification period for full eligibility. Given his outstanding record as a batsman for Nottinghamshire, for whom he has scored 10 first-class hundreds, three of them doubles, there are many judges who believe that the selectors will waste no time in calling him up.
"My goal is to play for England and because of the quota system I would love to see England nail South Africa," Pietersen said.
"There would be no divided loyalties. I have settled in England and I am fully committed to this country. When I go back to South Africa now it is only to go on holiday. When I was growing up I wanted to play for my country but if South Africa came to me tomorrow and asked me to play for them I would say no.
"I just think the quota system is wrong. It is limiting the opportunities for good players and making for a poorer South African team. It benefits nobody, not even the coloured players it is supposed to help.
"There are some very good non-white players, but a lot of them are being thrown in at the deep end in state cricket and are simply drowning. That will only put people off rather than encourage them.
"A lot of players share my view. A lot have come here to play cricket because they know they will be selected on merit and I believe more will follow."
Although Pietersen knows most of the players in the South African dressing-room, he insists there are no pangs of regret. "I made my decision and I'll stick to it," he said. "It is not easy to leave your home country, but my family have supported me the whole way and most players are behind me too. I have encountered some sour grapes in South Africa but most people I have spoken to say I made the right decision for my career."
Pietersen stands at 6ft 4in and, with a long reach and considerable upper body strength, has the capacity to murder county bowling attacks with the same voracity Hick once displayed. Pietersen's feats with the willow have endeared him to the Trent Bridge public.
Having made his maiden first-class century in only his fourth Championship appearance in 2001, he became the youngest Nottinghamshire player to score a first-class double-hundred when he hit 218 not out against Derbyshire in the same summer. Last season, he established a post-war record Championship score for the county when he posted an unbeaten 254 against Middlesex, and he already has another double-hundred under his belt this year, keeping his first-class average well above 50.
Now he wants to make his off-spin bowling as big a part of his armoury as his batting. Significantly, perhaps, the England selector Geoff Miller, who bowled off-breaks in 34 Test matches, has offered to help Pietersen develop his all-rounder status.
"He said that when I do become available he would like me to be able to offer all three disciplines - batsman, bowler and fielder," Pietersen said.
Should he continue to pummel county bowlers with his current regularity, his batting alone might be enough to earn the call.
As it happens, the first major England tour for which he could be picked in 2004 is to South Africa. "I've set my sights on being on that one," he said. "To play against South Africa in South Africa would be fantastic." And there is such purpose in his voice, you suspect it is a target he will attain.Reuse content