Almost a year ago to the day, I watched as one of our finest contemporary batsmen made a high-class South African attack look incredibly ordinary in the Caribbean sun. It was an innings that oozed nonchalance, bravado and dominance, qualities that have deserted Kevin Pietersen all too often in the last couple of years.
I do not use the phrase ‘one of our finest contemporary batsmen’ loosely. As a constant supporter of KP amid the questions about his temperament, I have continually been in the camp that says “let him play the way he wants”. He has won England many a game like that, but has also delivered on numerous occasions when the team really needs him to do so – think of the hundreds he made against New Zealand home and away in 2008, or the hundred he made to help draw the game against India at The Oval in 2007 where, until he was out, the pursuit of victory never left his mind despite the situation.
KP has always been an odd one for me; he is not normally the type of player I would take to. Maybe it’s the Britishness inside of me, or my own preferred style of batting, but the sheer mental toughness and unassuming natures of Michael Atherton and Alastair Cook have been more appealing in the past. I admire KP for the uniqueness he brings to the game, and the way he can create such a buzz around the ground. I wouldn’t put him in the same bracket as the great Sir Vivian Richards, but who else has been daring enough to walk across his stumps and whip and punish balls that have no right to go where he puts them? He has batted with such brilliance and freedom that at times his repertoire has ranged from the flamingo to the switch-hit to any shot he so wished to play.
Why have we been watching the shadow of a man who has been capable of such audacious performances for the last two years?
To put it simply, it just hasn’t been happening for him. The arrogant swagger seems no longer to be there. Treating bowlers with pure contempt has failed him all too often. There have been flashes of brilliance, namely the cracking 227 he scored in Adelaide, which improved his average over the last two years from 35.61 to 41.08, while still falling way short of his overall one of 48.42. Just two centuries in the last two years as well! I build him up for good reason and with good intent, but when the likes of Gautam Gambhir score five in a row, our superstar batsman has to be more consistent. His one-day form in the period has probably let him down even more: in his last 23 matches he has only managed to average 24.34, next to the 40.98 he returns overall.
I was mildly annoyed amid suggestions that one of the reasons he left the World Cup was that he lacked the desire to play on, that he wasn’t really fully committed to England otherwise he would have played on through the injury. Here’s a guy whose dedication to fitness allowed him to play 54 Test matches on the trot. He had been through it before, too, in 2009, when he played on with an Achilles injury instead of sorting it out earlier.
I wouldn’t question his commitment at any time, and it doesn’t bother me about his original nationality. I feel people should be glad that he is playing for England. The South African twang will always be there, and it will always come sprinkled with scepticism in people’s minds about his right to be in the England team. But his mother is English too so come on, has that not gone on for long enough now?
And so to the scars left by his short reign as captain. You would forgive him a certain amount of disgruntlement when he lost the ‘armband’, but letting it bother him for two years? Surely not. With the selectors bypassing him for the ODI captaincy again, it’s hard not to believe that his chance has gone for good now. He would definitely have been hoping to get another crack, but justifying himself as one of the leading batsman in the world should be his sole aim now.
There have been rumours of him retiring from ODIs; he must not take this road. To do that would be to put himself first, which is understandable, but given that he is still only 30 and has the ability to play in all formats, the disappointment, for England supporters, would be considerable.
With Andrew Strauss and quite possibly Paul Collingwood no longer playing in the 50-over team, Pietersen’s presence has never been needed more. If losing the captaincy hurt him as much as he says it has, and I truly believe it did, then there is a chance for him now to be a prominent figure again: the senior man in the dressing room. The guy everyone wants to go to, look up to and learn from. The bloke who makes playing cricket look easy.
It is interesting to note that while he was living a so-called superstar lifestyle, he was playing without fear, whereas now he has settled down nicely, to marriage and fatherhood, some of the edge seems to have been taken out of his batting. For many players this works the other way round. Now this is in no way meant to reflect badly on his lovely family, an aspect of life he adores above all else. Perhaps getting married and having children may have just given him something to lose, which has transferred to the cricket pitch, giving him something else to think about.
A clear mind is what Kevin Pietersen needs to move forward. Whatever has happened in the past must be shaken out of him, one way or another. I don’t think tempering his style is the answer, but I would urge a certain responsibility. He has helped take England’s game forward and his exciting play, which I love to watch, has coincided with the constantly shifting nature of the modern game.
The truth is, England still need Pietersen, but even more importantly Pietersen needs England. Up until the World Cup, they had enjoyed a very successful couple of years, often without Kevin Pietersen, which would have damaged the ego of a man who thrives on being needed. He has always been happiest playing the big games against the big players; he yearns for the world to watch him in awe once again on the pedestal of the international stage.
This summer is massive for KP. Captaining Surrey against Cambridge University is not where he wants to be. Creaming Zaheer Khan through the covers is much more attractive. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t mind having the talent to do that, would you?