Pietersen's woes: We need to talk about Kevin
Ask anyone in the England camp about KP and they'll say there's nothing to worry about. But is his slump in form more than just a blip?
Thursday 04 March 2010
He is the topic of conversation at the heart of the England team. People cannot stop talking about him and the subject of his form will not disappear until and unless the old Kevin comes back. Kevin Pietersen, for it is he, has been granted some breathing space. England have won the first two one-day internationals in Bangladesh and in the second two nights ago a new star announced himself in the shape of the supremely inventive Irish left-hander Eoin Morgan.
Morgan's beautifully-paced innings, allied to timely strokeplay and a rapid reverse sweep which has no peer in the game, brought him 110 undefeated runs. This was not a new piece of theatre, All About Kev, a young tyro of 23 seizing the mantle of the old master, but it made it easier to ponder Pietersen's future status in this England team.
The question is not whether he can play well enough as an international batsman to retain a place in the team. He certainly can, if only because this is a cycle in the game where the cream of English batting out there in the shires is really only semi-skimmed. The question is whether Pietersen can regain the powers that made him such a glorious spectacle and formidable opponent. To listen to his colleagues, or at least to hear their public pronouncements on the matter, the suspicion of doubt is heresy.
Alastair Cook, the captain on the tour of Bangladesh, is perfectly happy to go on the record that he has no concerns about Pietersen. A big score is round the corner. Nobody practises harder. Indeed he said that Kev was a bit of a genius.
At a briefing before the second one-day international the other day, Graeme Swann stressed that the team were surprised by the lack of runs so far in Bangladesh. "I think he has got a big score in him if he gets beyond the first 10 or 15 balls." And again yesterday, Matt Prior said: "It's only a matter of time before he'll come good and score hundred after hundred."
The point here, of course, is that by now they expect to be asked. Like everybody else, they know that Pietersen is not strutting his stuff as he once did. On the present tour of Bangladesh so far Pietersen's scores have been 0, 6, 1 and 18. This follows disappointing returns on the tour of South Africa in December when he finished with Test innings of 0, 6, 7 and 12.
Trick strokes that once seemed so potent are now getting him into trouble. His batting method, never based entirely on orthodoxy though anybody as prolific as he has been is never entirely unorthodox, is under scrutiny. The bat brought down at a crooked angle, which would once have seen the ball disappearing through wide mid-wicket is now misfiring. On Tuesday he was again dismissed by a left-arm spinner, a breed that has frequently bothered him. Some judges also say that the combination of the yorker and the fast bouncer is undermining him.
Pietersen is not only of robust temperament, imbued with thoughtful self-belief, but also one of the hardest trainers in the game. But there comes a time when it goes beyond technical glitch. There comes a time when self-doubt, with which he has never been afflicted, starts to intrude. How long can he go on, he might think, doing what he is doing, while it steadfastly refuses to yield returns?
In his most recent long interview just before this tour with The Wisden Cricketer, he said: "It's just being still and tall at the crease and having my sort of aura and confidence at the wicket, to concentrate on what I'm doing instead of worrying about what's coming at me. You can end up thinking too much. Now I just want to spend some time in the middle, hopefully that will come in Bangladesh."
But so far it has not come in Bangladesh and that is made the more remarkable because a corner seemed to have been turned, even if the finishing straight was not in sight, on the first leg of this tour in Dubai. In the two Twenty20 internationals there against Pakistan he looked in command again. But now this, another small rough patch, more affirmative statements by his colleagues.
Pietersen has been England's best batsman by a distance virtually since he broke into the team five years ago. Whatever the nature of his relationships with his colleagues – as in all dressing rooms he has got on better with some than others – they have always been happy to concede his status because it was obvious. Runs and wickets are the ultimate currency of cricket changing rooms and the longer they keep coming the greater the supply of tolerance.
For his first four years in the England team, Pietersen was as successful as he was dramatic. He scored most of the runs in all of the teams and he did so in a breathtaking fashion. He averaged 50 in Test cricket and 50 in one-day cricket and did not mind saying that his ambition was to preserve both statistics. Both have headed south a touch to 48 and 44, respectively.
The last year, however, has been one of turbulence, each element of which has conspired to prevent him building a rhythm for the game and being in that place that sportsmen call the zone. He was deprived of a captaincy which was thrust upon him in a hurry. When it transpired that he had been effectively plotting against the England coach, Peter Moores, his days were numbered. It led to one of the most cataclysmic weeks in English cricket history: both men were deposed.
It is in Pietersen's strong character that he made it his business to regroup immediately. Not for him bouts of self-pity or self-flagellation. "Whatever will be will be," he always says. The immediate response was an innings of 97 in his first match back as non-captain, the only response conceivable.
Then came the Achilles injury which forced him to miss the last three matches of the Ashes series last summer, and the slow recovery which followed. It is this long lay-off that is largely responsible for the poor sequence of scores. He is a batsman who needs cricket and has not been getting enough of it, an unfamiliar complaint by the modern pro, for sure, but there you are.
There is also the happy impending event of a first child for him and his wife, Jessica. All is well but the complication is that the scheduled delivery date is during the World Twenty20 in the West Indies. Pietersen will be in England's squad but he has insisted, rightly if contentiously for those living in the past, that he will be at the birth. Maybe he would be better off pulling out. Except that he also has the Indian Premier League to think of and the cash he can earn for three weeks there, around £250,000. Perhaps he will have to pull out of that as well.
At least he is physically rehabilitated. But he has plenty to think about still and Bangladesh in the next three weeks must start to bring redemption.
Since Pietersen sustained an Achilles injury last summer, his form in the one-day form of the game has suffered dramatically.
Pre-injury (28 Nov 2004 to 3 April 2009)
Highest score: 116 (v S Africa, Feb 05)
Post-injury (22 Nov 2009 to 2 March 2010)
Highest score: 48 (v W Indies, April 09)
Kevin Pietersen's only high score of late, in February's Twenty20 match against Pakistan.
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