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Kevin Pietersen – a maverick who was more than worth the troubles

Kevin Pietersen would go on to brush with the administrators of the game in every conceivable way. But, no one could deny his talent and the importance of his destructive blade in the middle of the line-up © Getty Images
Kevin Pietersen would go on to brush with the administrators of the game in every conceivable way. But, no one could deny his talent and the importance of his destructive blade in the middle of the line-up © Getty Images

Kevin Pietersen’s sudden axing has flummoxed all and angered many. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the stature of the batsman in the context of the game and what his departure means to cricket.

When Kevin Pietersen celebrated his 33rd birthday last June, this writer had written a tribute to him ending with the following words of hope:

“At 33, having put a lot of trials and tribulations behind him, Pietersen does seem to have a good many years of cricket ahead of him. He has already amassed 7,499 runs in 94 Tests, at an average of 49.01 with 22 hundreds. The figures put him at par with the all-time greats among English batsmen. The future can be a path paved with the most glorious quantities of runs, and the only adversary that can stand in the way is Pietersen himself.”

Since then it has been a mere 222 days. And Pietersen’s career has already grind to an abrupt and ruthless halt.

As the cricket world stands shocked, and several sections of English fans outraged, the circumstances of his axing remain infuriatingly fuzzy. Did Pietersen finally manage to self-destruct his way to an early finish? Or was it something more than just the idiosyncrasies of the man himself?

The magic of Pietersen

Sadly, the good many years of cricket forecast on his birthday could not be rounded to even a single completed one. In the interim period, Pietersen played just 10 more Tests, all of them against Australia, scoring 682 runs at 34.10, with one hundred. The final figures thus stand at 8181 runs from 10 Tests at 47.28.

Overall his tally from all formats stand at 13,797 – the highest by an English batsman. While announcing that he would never don the England colours again, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) managing director Paul Downton termed this particular feat “a testimony to his immense skill.”

Ah well, it is akin to killing a man with the words ‘god bless his noble soul’.

The figures took a beating towards the end, but still remain more than impressive. But, we all know that a primal talent like Pietersen was capable of much more.

It is the Test strike rate of 61.72 that stands out as remarkable. It easily places Pietersen among the 20 fastest scorers of all time among specialist batsmen. And the rein lies the disquiet in the cricket loving souls in spite of whatever justification we can surmise from the guarded statements about ‘ethics and philosophy’ released by the ECB.

Pietersen was undeniably a phenomenal batsman — and one of the most exciting of all time. One whose nature did not allow a short ball pass by without the bat swishing in a pulverising horizontal arc. One who transfixed crowds by changing his grip at the blink of an eye and bringing off spectacular switch-hits.

Never has an England batsman captured the imagination of the fans in such absolute terms since the years of grace witnessed with David Gower at the crease. While Gower catered to the connoisseurs, Pietersen radiated an appeal encompassing the entire expanse of cricket adherents.

It would be fair to say that Pietersen, along with Andrew Flintoff, hauled English cricket by the bootstraps, and for an incredible 2005 season elevated it above the headlines reserved for football. He became a celebrity, in the same league as David Beckham. His glamorous looks adorned billboards as much as his runs splashed across the scoreboard. He was English cricket’s first rock-star, with a larger than life image that resembled Ian Botham.

English cricket needed him. The sport needed him. He brought glamour into the game and crowds into the stands. And he lent audacity, class and personality to the English middle order.

Unending Problems

When he had appeared on the scene there had often been severe and dismissive criticism. Geoffrey Boycott and Mike Gatting had never been too impressed by his off-field activities. They had not approved of his zest for life away from cricket, or the sponsorship he enjoyed from a jewellery company. The peroxide blonde hair and conspicuous earrings did not really endear him to the old timers. Not many appreciated that Pietersen, while letting himself go and living life to the fullest outside cricket, was also one of cricketers who trained the hardest.

Life had seemed to turn a full circle when he played that heroic knock at The Oval to salvage the Ashes in 2005. But, actually it just went on in circles before coming to this peculiar halt.

Even as the team had celebrated after the Ashes triumph in 2005, a Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) member had voiced his prejudices across the Long Room at Lord’s, “Get your hair cut, Pietersen!” Yes, traditional England, rooted in the manufactured memories of the game’s village green traditions, had continued to eye him with suspicion.

Pietersen would go on to brush with the administrators of the game in every conceivable way. But, no one could deny his talent and the importance of his destructive blade in the middle of the line-up. More importantly, no one could doubt his importance as a charismatic character in a game that could do with such an icon.

Now it seems that the blade has been deemed less destructive than his off-field antics and unclear dressing room dynamics.

Frustratingly obscure reasons

Downton was frustratingly obscure as he said: “Clearly this was a tough decision because Kevin has been such an outstanding player for England as the fact that he is the country’s leading run scorer in international cricket demonstrates. However everyone was aware that there was a need to begin the long term planning after the Australia tour. Therefore we have decided the time is right to look to the future and start to rebuild not only the team but also team ethic and philosophy.”

It rings less than thin. Pietersen is just 33, and should have easily fit into any long term plan in terms of age. And the terms ‘ethic’ and ‘philosophy’seem to have been chosen purely due to the amount of vagueness they emit.

Pietersen has always had problems with the management. From the time he left South Africa disgruntled with the quota system, to the confrontation with Nottinghamshire skipper Jason Gallian, from his giving up the England captaincy following an ugly confrontation with coach Peter Moores, to the recent text message fiasco, he has always been a difficult man to handle.  However, there have been enough results on the pitch to balance things out.

He has essayed too many gems to list here in full. The century against South Africa at Lord’s in 2008 led The Times to call him ‘the most complete batsman in cricket’. A 151 scored in the completely alien conditions of Colombo in April 2012 prompted The Guardian to follow suit and brand him “England’s greatest modern batsman.” When we consider his versatility, the ability to score at any rate, and the phenomenal difference he made in the limited-overs format, we find little to challenge his claims of being the greatest England batsman of recent times

It is precisely this brilliance that has led Mark Boucher to tweet “[Pietersen] left out? Wow! Times must be good to leave your best player out! Sad day for the game!”

Broadcaster Piers Morgan, a high profile Pietersen backer, has gone ballistic on his twitter — so much so that #ECBClowns started trending by late evening on Tuesday.  He claims that Pietersen was not given any reason for the axing.

It is this air of mystery that has rankled many. Pietersen’s first Test captain Michael Vaughan has voiced, “I think the [ECB] have to explain to everyone exactly what [Pietersen] has done so we can all have clarity and reasoning. Sad way to end a maverick’s England Career .[Pietersen] will be missed…Would love to know what he does that is unmanageable !!??”

Indeed, Pietersen is by no means the first maverick to have problems with his team management. And he will not be the last. One of the main responsibilities of the ‘team management’ is to ensure that a side can function as a unit even with these volatile characters.

As Vaughan put it in another tweet: “Easy call is too get rid of [Pietersen]. The hard call is too manage that type of personality and accept it’s hard work but rewarding.”

Captain Alastair Cook had seemed to be taking all the steps to merge the differences between the team and the star player, and had been instrumental in “reintegrating” Pietersen into the Test side. However, something seems to have happened in the last three months during the disastrous tour of Australia.

All of a sudden all the painstakingly built bridges have been burnt with scary finality. And the resulting smokescreen can hardly be justified with words woven around ‘some clarity for the future of the England teams’.

In Photos: Kevin Pietersen’s career

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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