It’s seven years since Kevin Pietersen exploded onto the Test match scene with a ridiculous hair-style and a blazing bat. At Lord’s in the opening encounter of that very special series against Australia in 2005 “KP” belted 121 runs in his two innings, with 14 fours and four sixes.
He also contrived to drop some catches (one, off Michael Clarke, proving costly), conceded overthrows, and then revealed his tactical know-how at his first Test press conference by explaining his assault after wickets had fallen in England’s first innings: “It’s what you call thinking on your feet.”
So fascinating was this newcomer that this morning I felt disposed to check out my earliest feelings about him by glancing through my book on that Ashes series.
Pietersen’s first six had been into the seats of the hallowed Lord’s pavilion, off Glenn McGrath’s slower ball.
As he smashed a rocket from Brett Lee for six into the Tavern stand I couldn’t help but feel that this batsman seemed to thrive on being centrestage.
With 57 and 64 not out, KP top-scored in both innings of that debut Test match, the first to do so for England since Tony Greig 33 years earlier. Both were South African-born and both were very tall and aged 25 at the time. And neither was/is exactly an introvert.
Still displaying that crazy hair-do, Pietersen hit 71 at Edgbaston in the second Test of that amazing 2005 series, which England won by two runs. There has never been a more thrilling finish. Two more thrillers followed: a tense draw at Old Trafford and a nerve-jangling three-wicket England victory at Trent Bridge.
It was time for Mr Pietersen to explode again at The Oval, where England would regain the Ashes if they avoided defeat. He was just nine years old when England had last held those Ashes.
His 158 in that deciding Test of 2005 was one of the most stirring knocks in the game’s annals, even if it owed everything to Shane Warne’s missed catch collarbone-high at slip when Pietersen was 15. He went on to smash seven sixes and 15 fours, almost as if he had confused this event for a limited-overs contest.
And he became a national hero as England won the Ashes after 16 years of agony. It’s almost forgotten now that one of England’s opening batsmen had ground out 129 in almost six hours on the first day, a great effort without which Australia would surely have retained the Ashes.
That century was the second of the series for Andrew Strauss, who was soon to become England’s captain, ultimately to have his closing days at the helm somewhat spoiled by the latest and most serious of the controversies in which Kevin Pietersen has been embroiled.
It may easily be forgotten that when Michael Vaughan stepped down as England skipper in 2008, with one Test match against South Africa still to come, it was Pietersen and not Strauss who was appointed leader. Considering the volatile nature of the former and the calm approach of the latter, the selectors’ decision caused a few raised eyebrows.
But, as he so often does, skipper Pietersen caught most people off-guard, making 100 in the Oval Test to help England to a consolation victory, then 144 to keep England afloat in the Chandigarh Test four months later.
Before that international season was over, KP had got himself into an ugly situation, challenging the suitability of Peter Moores as England’s coach. Suddenly Moores was gone, and so was Pietersen (as captain). Strauss became captain, embarking on a three-and-a-half-year term in which the Ashes were recaptured and England rose to Number 1 in the ICC World Rankings. The Middlesex left-hander achieved all this by dint of a quietly strong personality, common courtesy, and a shrewd and tough back-up crew. Kevin Pietersen must have wondered often during this period whether all this could have been his had he managed to keep a lid on his emotions.
His contribution with the bat was muted for a time, but his 227 at Adelaide swung the 2010-11 Ashes series, and apart from a few wobbles against slow left-arm spin, he seemed set for a final lap in Test cricket which could take him to the top of England’s elite lists: he now has 21 Test centuries, level with Strauss and only one behind England’s top names Hammond, Cowdrey and Boycott. Alec Stewart’s England run record (8463) is also within sight. A return to the England Test captaincy for KP was not a realistic prediction after what has happened – and with Alastair Cook seemingly firmly entrenched, and plenty of young talent being brought through the system. But as the senior player, and having eased his workload by announcing his retirement from limited-overs cricket, Kevin Pietersen should now be enjoying some of his very best years.
So what went wrong? As most of the cricket world now knows, he went one indiscretion too far. In the middle of a Test series against the land of his birth, he was sending silly text messages to some of his mates in the South African camp. There was speculation that he was lampooning a team-mate or two, possibly even his captain, Strauss. Pietersen later denied that he made any references to tactical matters. He orchestrated a filmed statement which appeared on YouTube, even offering to play in the Twenty/20 World Cup. It was not enough for the England management. Their fury was palpable.
He was instantly dropped from the England Test team, even though they were in desperate straits in the home series against South Africa. And it was not like banishing any old player for misdemeanours. This was England’s Number One, who had just smashed 149 to keep England alive at Headingley in the second Test. Watching him batting with the tiny James Taylor as the total moved from 173 to 320 emphasised the giant stature of Kevin Pietersen among contemporary batsmen.
His exclusion hurt him and perhaps even bewildered him, for what he’d done didn’t seem to him sufficiently serious to warrant being turfed out of the England set-up. Days of speculation and tub-thumping passed, and then Pietersen decided to make that solo statement. It was neither the proper way to go about it and nor was it detailed enough in explanation or strong enough in terms of apology. Would he tour with England for the much-anticipated India campaign? Finally the selectors’ answer: no. Will he ever be accepted back? Who knows?
“It’s hard being me in this dressing-room,” stated Kevin Pietersen at Headingley after what could transpire to be his final Test appearance. And millions will wonder why that should be so. They’d give almost anything to have his batting talent and his world travel and his wealth and his popularity (albeit not in every sector of society). He has an adoring wife and little son and a management agent to organise his finances and his life. He knows that his Indian Premier League activity is exciting and extremely lucrative, and that it should last for some time. (Its clash with England’s early-summer home Test series was another problem area.)
So this giant conundrum lies paralysed, and the world of cricket awaits the next move with some trepidation. Were England strong or simply petulant in dealing out such extreme punishment, perhaps also inflicting a wound upon themselves? Might not a heavy fine have been more fitting, thus not depriving the public of KP’s spectacular batting? What does Geoff Boycott, himself not the most popular player in the England dressing-room, think about all this? “Don’t even think of saying that Botham and Boycott were talented, awkward buggers but helped win matches and that someone had to man-manage them. We never rubbished our captains to the opposition while playing with them,” he wrote this week.
Dear old “Boycs” seems to have forgotten that he was once dropped for slow scoring and that Botham once deliberately ran him out in order to speed up a victory drive in a Test match in Christchurch. These big-time cricketers. What would you do with ‘em?
As for KP, that man was born to BAT, not to waffle on television commentary.