World class or celebrity? The KP jury is out yet again
Kevin Pietersen believes he's in great form but the evidence is sketchy. Can he offer some proof in Cardiff?
Wednesday 25 May 2011
For the past two years the most common declaration in English cricket has been: "He's a world-class player, it's only a matter of time before he starts scoring loads of runs again." It is an article of faith of which Harold Camping would be proud.
Camping, an American evangelist, spent years telling millions of followers on his Family Radio, that the world would definitely, positively end on 21 May 2011 at 6pm. Fortunately, we are still waiting.
Unfortunately, we are also still waiting for Kevin Pietersen to fulfil the firm prognostications of his colleagues and supporters. The Test series against Sri Lanka, starting tomorrow in Cardiff, presents the latest opportunity for Pietersen to demonstrate that he really is a world-class player who can score loads of runs and not a two-bit celebrity desperate for more time in the spotlight.
It is not that Pietersen has become a poor batsman, but that he is no longer one who automatically justifies the hype or the expectation. His Test match career can be divided into two unequal bits, the first up to and including his brief tenure as captain, the second after it. In the first period of 45 matches he scored 15 hundreds and averaged 50.49; in the second of 26 matches, he has scored two hundreds and averages 43.
Something happened and it has not yet unhappened. He has been afflicted by injuries in the past two years and his batting has mislaid the carefree fluency of yore. Maybe bowlers know a bit more about him, but sometimes he has been in several minds at the crease and what was outrageously successful has looked daft. The risks that once paid dividends in a bull market have cost him dearly in a bear market.
He is not on the verge of being dropped – quite – but his place is openly discussed now. In the three innings he has played this year since the hernia operation which caused his premature departure from the World Cup he has got in and got out for 30, 48 and 56. The chairman of selectors, Geoff Miller, showed not a hint of surprise when he was asked about Pietersen's presence in the team when even a year ago he would have simply ignored the question. That Pietersen is not fireproof was demonstrated by his omission from the one-day side last summer, the catalyst for rumours he would withdraw from that form of the game.
Yet he still has a star quality denied his team-mates. On Sunday night he helped to present the Bafta Fellowship award to Sir Trevor McDonald. On Monday night, he was the subject of the Special Report programme on Sky Sports, KP Uncovered. And this for someone now rated as the 23rd batsman in the world.
"I had a bad couple of years," he said yesterday. "I went away last September to do some soul-searching and sort myself out and tick some boxes and work with people who really know me inside out and a month later I got a double hundred in Adelaide and averaged 60 in the Ashes and I'm back playing as well as I have ever played. I am happy where I am as a cricketer at the moment."
There is an element of delusion there. That can be partly be explained by the fact that Pietersen got to where he did by a profound, instinctive trust in his talent and partly because he has never been one to admit his error or follies. It is true that he averaged 60 during the winter's Ashes and his 227 in the second Test in Adelaide was a scintillating affair from start to finish but either side of it in five more innings in the series he mustered 133 runs.
Pietersen, like many stars who at once shun but crave the spotlight, feels misunderstood. He is distinctly and understandably waspish about the press but he remains steadily affable to most of those hanging around most of the time and would rather have their approval.
It is certainly the case that observers rush to judgement about him but then he invites it by such antics as getting caught for speeding in a yellow Lamborghini in Melbourne after the great innings in Adelaide last year and being spotted in a nightclub with some pals two day after coming home from the World Cup because of the intolerable pain from a hernia.
Even when he tries to do unalloyed good it can go wrong, as when he auctioned some cricket paraphernalia to raise funds for the victims of the Queensland floods in January. The auction was won by a hoaxer who did not have the money.
"There's a lot of people saying things about me that are not true," he said. "They're saying I want other things, I didn't want cricket. I love cricket, cricket is my everything. I'm 30 years of age right now, what would I do tomorrow if I didn't have cricket?"
His annoyance stems directly from mischievous stories that he was on the verge of giving up one-day cricket. They were uncorroborated, not least by Pietersen himself, but before long had become virtual fact. When he left the World Cup only two days after it was stipulated that his hernia was manageable, the suspicion grew.
If he was thinking of terminating his limited-overs career he made it clear yesterday that he no longer has the intention. As he said, it complicated the logistics of central contracts (not to mention reduced the salary). "It just doesn't work and it just creates more nonsense for me. Why would I want to create that nonsense? There's enough nonsense with me just sitting at home doing nothing and I wake hearing things I've supposedly said or done."
Pietersen's relationship with his team-mates remains the subject of fascination. Sporting sides, like other groups, tend to split into mini-groups in which solid friendships are formed. It is nothing more or less than that you are bound to be bigger mates with some people than others because of age, experience, outlook, interests.
He appears to have no close chums in the set-up; from the outside sometimes it looks as though he tries too hard, a charge that could be levelled against his tweeting. But his demeanour yesterday was of one who still has things to do in cricket. He liked the idea of becoming a legend of the game.
"If I get a fair crack at it I'd love to do that yes, that's what I'm really after," he said. "I want to be the best player I can be and there's nothing that will detract me from that. It'll surprise you to know I didn't have a holiday when I came back from the World Cup.
"Every single night I spent in my bed and woke up the next morning and I was in the gym so that come Cardiff time I was ready. I'm so fit at the moment. You could see that from the way I've been diving around in the last two games in the field and I woke up with no pain in my belly, which is amazing.
"Obviously, there was stiffness in my legs but not as bad as it would have been if I'd had taken time out to have holidays and enjoy all the spoils that everyone says I enjoy. I was focused on getting back to being here in Cardiff, fully fit, happy and ready to go." England with a restored Pietersen would be a better proposition still. It is to be hoped Harold Camping keeps his nose out of it.
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