Kevin Pietersen: An insanely talented cricketer, a maverick rockstar and controversy’s favourite child
Kevin Pietersen: His accomplishments thus far have already guaranteed him a place among the pantheons of the English greats © Getty Images
Kevin Pietersen, born June 27, 1980, is the one of the most exciting batsmen of modern times and certainly ties with his close friend Shane Warne as the most colourful character. Arunabha Sengupta traces the career of this phenomenally talented South African-born England batsman who draws crowd to fill stadiums like few of his contemporaries.
England just needed to bat out the last day to regain the 2005 Ashes after one of the most sensational series ever. There had been heartbreak at Lord’s, delight at Edgbaston, agony at Old Trafford and ecstasy at Trent Bridge. Now, all the tension, blood, sweat and tears had boiled down to one final day that the batsmen had to survive. Eighteen years of wait to lay the hands on that elusive urn, still considered in numerous Anglo-Australian quarters as the greatest prize in cricket. If only Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Shane Warne could be held at bay for three sessions.
England led by six in the first innings, but quick wickets in the second allowed Australia the chance of snatching a victory on the last day. And the English hopes now rested on a South African-born batsman, playing his first Test series. “It has been quite a journey to reach this stage. I have crossed many boundaries and the ride has been eventful,” he reflects in his characteristically outspoken autobiography, Crossing the Boundary. Every step taken towards the fledgling Test career was eloquent in the patchwork of incredible. And now, Kevin Pietersen, a batsman bristling with the most exciting talent seen in England for decades, was out there, standing in the way of the determined Australians, batting for the Ashes and his own destiny.
He had already made a mark in the few outings to the crease in this breath-taking series. At Lord’s he had taken the fight to the Aussies, being only the fourth English batsman to top-score in both innings on debut, only the eighth among 626 to make half-centuries in each innings. He had added 103 with Andrew Flintoff in the second Test, a period of batting that was perhaps the most explosive in the recent history of English cricket. Yet, his batting, although touched by extraordinary class and refreshing aggression, had not yet been graced by big scores, and neither had it been endorsed by the experts.
In fact, some of them had been vocal in their dismissive criticism. Geoff Boycott and Mike Gatting had not been too impressed by his off-field activities. They did not approve 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.
Pietersen knew that he had to perform on this high impact day to hush his many critics to complete silence, to convince them that he was worthy of wearing English colours in Test cricket.
And with his score on 15, with eight overs to go for lunch, Brett Lee charged in and bowled at his fastest. Pietersen drove hard and it flew towards the slip, at neck-height. Shane Warne, who had contributed magnificently to the Australian cause throughout the series, waited there. The batsman and fielder both played for Hampshire and were wonderful friends. But, no quarters could be expected during a hard fought Ashes contest. Warne, a superb slip fieldsman, expected the ball to come faster. It went into his hands and popped right out. It was the second time Pietersen had been put down in the short innings.
Later Paul Hayward wrote in Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 2006, “That simple error turned Pietersen into a household name and millionaire. Sport’s sound-track is the music of chance.”
After the blemish, Pietersen erupted. He did save the match and securely sealed the Ashes, but did so not with a willow without life, clinging on in desperate quest of survival. He did it with a blade that cut the high quality attacks into uncountable ribbons. He met the turning balls of Shane Warne and the scorching pace of Brett Lee head on. He started by swinging Warne twice over the mid-wicket into the stands, and followed it up by hooking two express Lee bouncers beyond the deep square leg fence. Australia kept picking up wickets and Pietersen continued to find the boundary. The English tail was soon exposed, but the lead kept increasing. The young batsman was in the zone and that zone started with the advertising board and stretched beyond the boundary.
With Ashley Giles at the other end, Pietersen drove Shaun Tait through the covers to reach his first hundred in Test cricket. He proceeded to go further, adding to the lead with blistering speed, putting the urn way beyond the Australian grasp. Lee was pulled for another six, Warne lofted nonchalantly over long-off and long-on. It required a beauty from Glenn McGrath to finally swerve past the bat and knock back his off-stump. But, Pietersen had saved the day and captured thousands of hearts. He had scored 158, off 187 balls, with 15 fours and seven sixes, statistics incompatible with the concept of rescue acts unless scripted with romantic flourishes fit for ditties of mythical heroism. Indeed, Pietersen had emerged as a hero.
As he walked back the stadium full of Englishmen, perhaps till then wary of a radical South African, rose as one to applaud him all the way to the pavilion. Shane Warne ran down from the slip and whispered into the ears of his friend, “Savour this moment.” Pietersen did. He had performed his job, and as was his way he partied hard.
The stuff of grandchildren, yet not meeting approval of grandads
It would be fair to say that Pietersen, along with Flintoff, hauled English cricket by the bootstraps, and for an incredible 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. No one could deny his success. The 473 runs in the Ashes series had come after his first 21 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) had seen him score at 87.33.
Yet, as the team celebrated, a Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) member 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, still eyed him with suspicion. Pietersen would go on to brush with the administrators of the game in every conceivable way, and have innumerable fallouts. But, no one could deny his talent and the importance of his destructive blade in the middle of the line-up.
Of the great innings at The Oval, Ashley Giles recollected, “It was real grandchildren stuff. Gather round and I’ll tell you about the innings I played with Pietersen, the white stripe and the earrings.” Yes, there were two early misses, and later a third which could have been miraculous had it been taken. But, Pietersen deserved the gift of fortune. It had been a long, arduous path to the great stage.
The arduous path
Pietersen hails from Pietermaritzburg, Natal. His father is Afrikaner, but importantly his mother Penny is English. It was this link to the mother country that breathed life into his rather stagnating career and enabled him to play international cricket.
His early days were spent as an off-spinner who could hit the ball rather hard from the lower order of Natal’s B team. Nasser Hussain later remembered this rookie off-spinner, who had taken four wickets and scored 61 runs for KwaZulu Natal against the touring England side in 1999.
“A young off-spinning opponent of ours walked into the England dressing room after taking a few wickets for KwaZulu Natal in a tour match in Durban and plonked himself down next to me, asking if I knew of any English teams he could play for,” Hussain wrote in the Daily Mail. Hussain thought he meant club cricket and gave the number of his brother Mel who played for Fives and Heronians in Essex, but Pietersen was reaching for higher dreams, eyeing the county fields. He had a British passport and could play as a non-overseas player. He went ahead and for a season turned out for Cannock in the Birmingham and District Premier League, helping them win the competition.
However, the final persuasion to migrate to England came from his omission from the Natal first team due to political reasons. There was the infamous quota for coloured cricketers, and a young off-spinning batsman by the name of Ghulam Bodi was chosen in his place. On becoming aware of this, Pietersen flung a bottle across the Natal dressing room and shouted, “I’m leaving.”
This coincided with the offer from Clive Rice, who had once selected Pietersen for South Africa Schools. Rice was the coach of Nottinghamshire and invited him to join the cricket team of the county. Yet, Pietersen made an attempt to continue his career in South Africa, even though his mentors and well-wishers, including South African captain Shaun Pollock, advised him to try his luck in Blighty. Coach Graham Ford arranged a meeting with Dr Ali Bacher, the most powerful man of South African cricket, Pietersen flew to Johannesburg with his father to meet the supremo of United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA).
In his autobiography, Pietersen writes: “Bacher was rude to me in that meeting, and rude to my dad … It was like he was trying to show his authority over us straight away…. [he] said soon the quota system would stop and that selection would go back to being on merit. So I said, ‘Dr Bacher, does that mean that, say next year, if the black and coloured players are not good enough, will Natal field an all-white side?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘They will be good enough and will play.’”
It was this moment that decided the future. Pietersen made his way to England and started playing for Nottinghamshire, on a three-year contract from 2001.
Bag flung down the stairs
In the summer of 2011, during the writer’s visit to Trent Bridge, the fascinating tour guide Alan Odell had regaled the writer with the tales of the ground. From the tree struck by innumerable sixes hit by George Parr, to the history of the Gunn and Moore bat makers, from the legend of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, to the rather curious tale of a toilet reconstructed specifically for Richie Benaud, the stories had been aplenty and across the length and breadth of cricketing eras. However, when we came in front of the old pavilion, he pointed at the steps leading to the home team’s dressing room and remarked, “Those are the steps down which Kevin Pietersen’s kit came flying.”
This tryst with controversy took place even before Pietersen’s rise to Test cricket. His first seasons with Nottinghamshire had been promising, including double hundreds against Derbyshire and Middlesex. He toured India in 2003-04 with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) National Academy. However, he was not happy. Nottinghamshire were relegated in 2003 and Pietersen wanted to be released from his contract. According to him, the Trent Bridge pitch had been the major source of his problems, and he could have done a lot better if the wicket was good. This led to a confrontation with skipper Jason Gallian and Pietersen’s kit was thrown down the Trent Bridge pavilion steps by the captain.
Pietersen was made to play for Notts till the end of his contract, but joined Hampshire after the season. He had already talked about possibilities in the county with skipper Shane Warne, and it had kick-started a rollicking friendship in the lines of Keith Miller and Denis Compton.
In the 2004-2005 season, the tour of Zimbabwe ran into problems with several English players unwilling to travel to a country rife with problems of the Robert Mugabe regime. The poor standard of the Zimbabwean side also added to the disinclination of the top England cricketers. Amidst the flurry of players opting out, Pietersen obtained his first taste of international cricket. He hit 77 not out in the second match at Harare.
In spite of that he was not initially chosen for the South African tour and made it only when Flintoff withdrew due to injury. His original homeland was full of taunts of traitor, and he was targeted by barrackers wherever he played. However, Pietersen roared back with his bat. A 108 not out came in 96 balls at Bloemfontein, 75 were plundered at Cape Town, and at East London he cracked a 69-ball hundred — the fastest by an England batsman. He ended the series with a 116, scored from 32 for three. By the time he returned to the pavilion, the hostile crowds had been converted into ardent admirers and the young man was given a standing ovation.
He was blooded into Test cricket in the Ashes series that followed in summer. After the spellbinding act at The Oval, he was awarded an English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) central contract.
Touched by greatness
Even as brushes with administrators and frequent tiffs with former players and teammates have continued, Pietersen has gone on trample over records in all formats of the game. He reached 1,000 ODI runs in 21 innings, tying for the fastest with Viv Richards. He got to 2000 in 45 innings, joining Zaheer Abbas at the top of the list. However, Hashim Amla later got to 2000 even quicker, needing five innings less.
Kevin Pietersen… touch of class © Getty Images
If we take away Don Bradman’s freakish exploits from the equation, we find Pietersen as the highest run scorer after 25 Tests with 2448 in his bag. In terms of calendar days, he became the fastest player to reach 4,000, 5,000 and 7,000 Test runs. In March 2007, he reached the top of the International Cricket Council (ICC) ODI rankings.
After being run out at Adelaide in 2006 after scoring 158, Pietersen had chuckled. Not many batsmen have this reaction when caught short of the crease, but it was the third time Pietersen had been out on this particular score, never managing to go past it — the first occasion being that epoch-making century at The Oval. However, he broke this curious jinx in the summer of 2007, with an emphatic 226 against West Indies at Leeds.
The glimpses of genius have been aplenty. Be it the century against Australia in the 2007 World Cup, the 129 at Napier after staring down the barrel at four for two, the 152 against South Africa at Lord’s in 2008, the 144 at Mohali as captain, or the 202 at Lord’s — both against India and 175 at The Oval also against the hapless Indians of 2011. The century 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 one compares his versatility and the ability to score at any rate, with the phenomenal difference he makes in the limited-overs format, we find little to challenge the claims of being the greatest English batsman of recent times. That is true in spite of the meteoric rise of Alastair Cook.
Using his height and reach to the fullest, Pietersen executes a full array of booming drives, exciting hooks and pulls, adventurous sweep shots against the spinner and intriguing innovations like the Switch Hit. For the switch-hit, a complete exchange of hand position takes place before the stance is changed. His resulting left-handed strokes are often played with a straight bat with immense power and precision. Although there are advocates of banning the improvisation because of the associated disadvantage to the bowlers and the resulting complications of the lbw law, switch-hit remains one of the most eagerly awaited stroke when he is at the crease.
There is hardly a more exciting sight in cricket than Kevin Pietersen cutting loose. 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 has an appeal encompassing the entire expanse of cricket adherents.
The brushes with controversy
However, Pietersen has always courted criticism and often more than a degree of infamy. His outspoken views about the quota system in his autobiography and a subsequent interview given to South African magazine GQ prompted calls for the International Cricket Council (ICC) investigation for bringing the game to disrepute. Pietersen was not unduly concerned and ultimately not much came of the complaints.
His fantastic form with the bat and growing maturity earned him the England captaincy in 2008. He earned millions of admirers in India for his insistence of going back and finishing the Test series after the players had left the land in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Yet, his days as captain were limited to three Tests and nine ODIs. He resigned after an ugly altercation with England coach Peter Moore.
Following this confrontation, he has been at loggerhead with ECB ever since. In 2012, he even announced his retirement from all forms of overs limit cricket. However, he later came back to play ODIs in India, and even as I write he is appearing in a Twenty 20 International game against New Zealand.
Pietersen has almost matched his friend Warne for the amount of controversies generated in the electronic world. His Twitter outbursts and inflammatory text messages against ex-cricketers as well as the selectors and teammates have not made him too popular in cricketing circles. When former England batsman Nick Knight broadcasted Test matches in the summer of 2012, Pietersen let his reservations about his credentials abundantly clear in the tweet, “Can somebody please tell me how Knight has worked his way into the commentary box for Tests? Ridiculous”
There have tweets against selectors as well, punctuated by swear words on occasions. None of these did a lot to help his status in the team, especially when he himself was going through a lean patch.
Finally in 2012, after the second Test against South Africa at Leeds, Pietersen hinted that he could retire after the third Test of the series. He continued this colourful press conference by being candid about supposed issues in the team. There followed allegations about not too flattering text messages concerning captain Andrew Stauss and coach Andy Flower that he was accused of sending to the South African dressing room. He was dropped from the team on disciplinary grounds.
Mercifully, he has returned into the foray and has given indications of having put all the differences behind him. His form has been superb, as exemplified by the 186 scored at Mumbai last winter.
Along with all the disciplinary issues and problems of adjustment, there remains in Pietersen an endearing tender facet. When his wife, Liberty X singer Jessica Taylor, was giving birth to a son, he flew across the Atlantic from Barbados to be present for the occasion. He reached the hospital just in time. Since the birth of his son, Pietersen announced his intention of staying close to the family in London and left Hampshire for Surrey.
There have been controversies, injuries and even insults. There have been streaks of poor form and periodic outbursts. Yet, the class has shone through as brightly as ever. Kevin Pietersen remains one of the most colourful characters of the modern era of cricket, and as a batsman one of the few capable of filling grounds with an hour of strokeplay.
Cricket needs such characters, who score runs by the day in the most debonair fashion and can be seen revelling at the bar late into the night. Pickled, pouty or problematic, Pietersen is a marvel with the bat, a talent of a kind seldom seen gracing the grounds.
At 33, and having put a lot of trials and tribulations behind him, he 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.
In Photos: Kevin Pietersen’s cricketing 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)