KP: The Autobiography — the controversial new book by Kevin Pietersen, reads like a litany of complaints and is quite an ordeal to go through. Arunabha Sengupta reviews the 300-plus pages, finding an overdose of spice and mud, while the few redeeming features are almost lost in obscure corners.
Not really a classic
Let’s face it. No one had expected KP: The Autobiography to be literature of the highest order.
Very few modern sporting autobiographies, even less cricketing ones, reach standards of good reads — no matter how rigorously they are ghosted. There is the occasional one by Marcus Trescothick that stands out, destined for oblivion due to the lack of publicity. There may be another by Michael Hussey that reads better than most. The majority of them, however, reach the press in an all-out gallop to beat the swift ebb of public memory and end up on the shelves as hastily produced, often half-baked offerings.
Kevin Pietersen’s latest autobiography — he has had one earlier penned in his own name, and two more biographies written by Simon Wilde and Markus Stead — started with the advantage that it was not expected to set new standards in sports literature. It was eagerly awaited, with the fans salivating in anticipation of the delicious spice it would contain. No one really awaited uplifting food for thought. After all, the modern inclination for reality shows is infectious and the book promised to turn the world of English cricket into one such prolonged saga.
There is no dearth of spice in the final offering. However, a 300-odd page fare stuffed with little meat and all spice is trying on even the most immune of systems. The entire book reads like a long shrill whine from start to finish. By the time one puts it down one’s nerves are a more than a bit frayed by the relentless barrage of complaints that the talented batsman shells out in every page.
True, this was never meant to be an autobiography in the true sense. This was always to be Pietersen’s version of events that led to his exclusion and what seems to be the end of his international career. The word ‘Autobiography’ in the title is evidently misleading
There is bound to be a significant amount of truth in what he sets down on paper — indeed some of it is bound to make the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and the main cricketing characters squirm in significant discomfort. But, the tone is way too jarring, annoying, grating and in the end grinding on one’s senses. Cricket as a sport is conspicuously absent in all but a few of the pages as one is provided an unsavory view of dirty dressing room linen washed with flourish and flamboyance in public.
In cases where an entire book reads like a divorce lawyer’s brief for the accused, it obviously boils down to one man’s word against another’s — in this case Pietersen’s account against the word of several. Obviously there are plenty of grey areas in every version, as well as truths, half-truths and fables. However, to make a robust case, the claims need to read mature, balanced and well-argued.
This is where Pietersen is found lacking and out of his depth. He comes across as almost juvenile, passionate to the degree of childish, with repetitive complaints followed by painful justifications, and resorting to puerile wordplays and taunts. Again, he may have very, very valid points, may definitely be on the side of the truth in many of the claims, but the book does little to present his points in a very believable format.
A litany of complaints
In a story that covers his career from the days of being the England captain till the infamous axe, Pietersen takes it out on several prominent members of the England cricket team and management. The worst hits are directed at coach Andy Flower and wicketkeeper Matt Prior. Additional cuts and thrusts are inflicted on the managing director of ECB Paul Downton, former coach Peter Moore, Andrew Strauss, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and Jimmy Anderson.
There are allegations of misuse of authority, bowler versus batsman cliques, abusing and bullying in dressing rooms and on the field, ridiculous scheduling, wrong selections, envy and badmouthing surrounding the Indian Premier League (IPL), dishonesty, backstabbing, turncoats. It reads like a 300-page complaint book filled up by the most disgruntled cricketer in the world — indeed it may be precisely described as exactly that.
Where it goes wrong is the tone. The chapter names are themselves giveaways. “Flower. As in Dour.” is the sixth chapter in the book that deals with the many sins of the England coach. He may be the taciturn, austere man Pietersen paints him to be, with a penchant for de-motivating cricketers and making mistakes. But using a series of rhyming phrases like “Andy Flower. Contagiously sour. Infectiously dour,” reads like a schoolboy’s abuse. So does calling him a “Mood Hoover” a bit too frequently. “He could walk into a room and suck all the joy out of it in five seconds,” writes Pietersen. As I already pointed out, this reads spicy for a cricket book, but if one comes across this sort of sentences ad infinitum through the 300 pages it tends to make even the most persevering ask questions.
Similarly, it may be Pietersen’s opinion that Peter Moore was too intense to have a positive impact as a coach. But, calling him a woodpecker, and naming the chapter after him “The Captain and the Woodpecker” seems in profoundly bad taste.
But all that pales in comparison to his handling of Matt Prior. The England wicketkeeper is painted in absolute dark shades as an incorrigible bully, and is referred to as “The Big Cheese” throughout the book. The chapter on him is perhaps the nastiest written by one cricketer about another — and that is saying something given the colourful and often combustible history of the game. The said chapter is titled ‘Le Grand Fromage’. Can one get more adolescent? How can one even take the claims seriously.
Not only does Pietersen resort to these childish cheap shots, he makes it a point to deliberately ignore facts on occasions. He takes a pot-shot at Downton, saying that before their meeting, “I had to Google him to discover his background: international but not world class.” Later he points out that “Downton, according to Google, was a lower-middle-order batsman with a Test average of under 20.” What Pietersen — or perhaps his Google search— casually ignores here is that Downton had been a wicketkeeper, in an era where wicketkeepers were not expected to bat like Adam Gilchrist. He fails to point out that Downton had batted better than many front-line batsmen against Laxman Sivaramakrishnan’s devious leg-spin during the tour of 1984-85.
Similarly, he sometimes gets carried away at his oversimplification of the reasons for various team dynamics that worked against him. Often these lead him to misstate facts. Seeking to explain the synergy between Strauss and Flower, Pietersen writes, “they were alike as players, which in fairness helped. Purely technical; left-handers; opening batsmen.” Sorry, Kevin, Andy Flower was indeed a left-hander, but cannot be called an opening batsman. He never opened even once in his 63 Test matches, and did so only occasionally in One-Day Internationals (ODIs).
Alastair Cook is perhaps the only one in the team management who gets away with just a minor singe from the relentless fire of criticism. Pietersen points out that “Cooky” is a nice man, but qualifies that “he is also a company man. A safe pair of hands, he won’t rock the boat.”
We do get an insider’s view into the many hitherto unexplained events dogging English cricket, but are left wondering how much of the view is the unadulterated truth and how different the points of view of all the slandered parties can be — people like Prior, Flower, Strauss and Downton.
Alongside the litany of accusations, Pietersen also seems intent to underline that the image of a brash, spoilt, overgrown superstar is purely a wrong one created by the media. He stresses that he is a private family man who would much rather spend the nights with his wife and kid rather than partying in bars. These parts may have been written from the heart. It is indeed too often that the first impressions stick and many redeeming years cannot rescue the image. But, it could have helped his case if his writing itself did not come across as that of an overgrown kid.
Another feature of the book, somewhat more subtle than the rest of it, seems to be Pietersen’s apology for the things he wrote about South Africa in his previous autobiography — Crossing the Boundary. “I should never have judged and nailed the political situation in South Africa just because the quota system did not work for me. I didn’t understand enough,” he writes.
He also says it was a mistake to overdo his Englishness, tattooing the three lions onto his arm. Is it an honest confession? Or is it an effort to build bridges in a country that can perhaps offer his career a new lease of life? It can only be left to speculation, but one can reach both conclusions with equal ease.
Does the book redeem itself in any way? Well, there are occasional sections, rare but significant, where Pietersen does talk about certain cricketing issues — taking leave of pitched battles fought in the dressing room and the disciplinary committee meetings.
The letter written by Rahul Dravid, in which the Indian maestro explains the intricacies of playing spin in the subcontinent, is a treat for any aficionado.
The part where Pietersen explains his signature switch hit is a rewarding read as well. So is the analysis of his own technique, in which he explains why Decision Review System (DRS) suddenly made him a bunny for left-arm spinners.
There is another interesting section in which he discusses the ways of interacting with the fans on twitter, the pitfalls of heated reactions to tweets, the showdowns which result from such exchanges between the player and the fan or between two cricketers — all these are very much a part of the modern scenario, and Pietersen’s views on these issues are enlightening.
And although dripping with criticism of the English players, Pietersen’s views about the Indian Premier League and the role it plays in modern cricket is quite revealing. “A lot of people in English cricket like to explain their attitude to the IPL as an ideological problem. To me it’s an English cricket problem. A problem about India. A problem about money”.
He proceeds to explain how important it is to the career of the professional cricketer who has only a limited number of years to make it big. “Your career passes you by quickly. IPL is the future, and in 20 years’ time I will be proud to say that yeah, I played in the early years of the IPL. And playing in the IPL paid a lot of the life my family will have in twenty years’ time.”
IPL to Pietersen is a wonderful finishing university where young cricketers get to rub shoulders with established stars from every land, resulting in an enormous learning experience. “You will learn things from different cricket cultures if your mind is open. But…”
Yes, some valuable insights are there, tucked away in obscure corners of the 300-odd pages full of complaints and cribs. On the other hand there is plenty of dirt and spice, enough to make copies sell like hot cakes — albeit somewhat dodgy for consumption.
“I didn’t always tread wisely. I was often naïve, and sometimes stupid. I was no villain though. All I ask is that you read it. Then you can judge.” Thus runs lines from the book, and the same lines are printed on the back cover of the dust jacket. Unfortunately, reading the book is neither painless nor very fruitful. And one cannot honestly judge after reading through it. Pietersen provides his story, but as I said, if one takes the tone of perpetual complaint and smears every other important figure in the dramatis personae with truckloads of mud, it boils down to his word against theirs.
The front cover of the dust jacket does a splendid job of using Kevin Pietersen’s face, in a shot with carefully calculated stubble that falls in the zone of intersection between glamorous and vulnerable. The title that follows underneath the face is, however, a misnomer. KP: The Autobiography? It is just a huge complaints register.
(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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