Twitter outbursts, no centuries and a rare bout of self-doubt. Kevin Pietersen tells Emma John about a difficult year and why he is not worried
We thought we knew Kevin Pietersen. From the moment he arrived on these shores, he has told us, loud and proud, who he is. His demeanour, his batting and his own words: all proclaimed him genius, headstrong, supreme egotist. Whatever Pietersen did, be it a maverick switch-hit into the upper tier, or dismissed by a rash shot while closing in on a century, we can classify it, understand it, rationalise it. That’s KP. What else did you expect?
Pietersen’s last two years, therefore, have proved unfathomable. Since March 2009, when he hit his last Test hundred, England’s most talented batsman – a title undisputed by his team and probably by Pietersen himself – has stuttered and stalled, and his loss of panache at the crease has been painful to watch.
Pietersen’s career has taught us to expect the unexpected but this was something else. This was a Pietersen who told the watching world, during a lunchtime interview on Sky, that he was lacking in confidence. This was not the KP we once thought we knew.
This Pietersen had kicked his heels as his team-mates edged a dramatic one-day series victory over Pakistan. He had raged about the situation on Twitter only to be disciplined and fined. A few weeks before he headed to Australia for the Ashes it seemed reasonable to expect a wounded animal, a frustrated, caged Lion who would bare his teeth at the first probing question. But he is surprisingly happy to talk about the incident.
“I was mortified,” he says, his face suitably humble. “Absolutely mortified. It was one of the things that hurt me most about anything.” The message was, he maintains, supposed to be sent privately to a friend but he posted publicly by accident – a plausible error.
The first sign of trouble, he says, was a slew of quizzical responses from friends. “I thought, what are people saying ‘what!’ for? And I went down and I saw it on my home screen and I was like” – he gulps loudly and comically, like Scooby Doo confronted by a spook. “And then I just knew – ‘Oh, no, what have you done!’” Cue worried calls to his agent, Adam Wheatley, to Andy Flower, to Hugh Morris. “But I laugh about it now. It was just a mistake.”
Mistake or not, that accidental tweet did offer a heartening glimpse at KP’s pride and motivation. However humble he is now about his omission from the ODI series, however understanding of his captain’s and manager’s decision – and he says, baldly, that when he was dropped he “was, like, no problem, fine” – here was the assurance, in no more than 140 characters, that Pietersen still knows just how bloody good he is.
The boy grew up
The first time I met Kevin Pietersen, five years ago, he had just flown home from his first triumphant England tour, bullying South Africa into submission in a one-day series with three hundreds in five games. He had returned to the UK with an ODI average of 139.5 and a very self-satisfied air. He boasted about the size of his wardrobe and told of his romantic successes with a wink that looked as if it had been rehearsed in front of a mirror.
This was, of course, shortly after he had been bade farewell from Nottinghamshire with no love lost on either side, so the impression of an arrogant young man was not an isolated one. But he was not charmless. He buzzed, positively vibrated, with artless enthusiasm and seemed genuinely to want to win people over. He just had no awareness that the effect was the opposite.
The Pietersen who sits before me now, smilingly at ease, seems very different. While 10 years in England have not softened his vowels, it is a surprise to hear how quietly he speaks. A short way into the interview, he asks some staff clattering about nearby, very politely, if they would keep the noise down a little. He answers questions courteously, in an even, measured tone, says he thoroughly enjoyed his short stint on loan at Surrey and remembers to thank his club-mates for their help and their friendliness. He talks of “knuckling down” and “getting a bit of confidence back”.
He was, he says, unfazed by the negative coverage of his Hampshire departure (The Sun said he had been ‘frozen out’). He is, in fact, unimpressed by most of the media attention he has received for the last couple of years surrounding his lack of form; he points to his winter performances and his man-of-the- tournament award in the World Twenty20. What went right there?
“The wickets were good,” he says, abruptly. Then, after a silence, he adds that he was able to take more risks and play more shots in Twenty20; that he was “playing really well against Australia [in June]”. “I just didn’t cash in where I should have. And the wickets we played on against Pakistan this summer were not very good for batsmen; they weren’t batter friendly at all. The bowlers were very happy this summer.”
This is a fair point, though the pitches were the same for everyone and the whole point of being the best player in the team is, well,
to be the best player in the team. There is no time to say this, however, because KP is now in full flow, disputing evidence of any lack of form. “I felt great, I felt I was batting really well. And it sounds like an excuse and I don’t like giving excuses but I think it’s a fact, if we look at the stats this summer, that not many runs were scored by batters.”
Pietersen gives himself a certain latitude when it comes to statistics. He talks about averaging “around 40” in Tests in the last 18 months, which is a glass-half-full way of looking at 35.87. And as well as the wickets, the media apparently “played a big part as well”. “Everybody was saying ‘Oh, he hasn’t got his hundred’ and I was trying a bit too hard, instead of just playing the way I normally play and waiting for things to happen.”
Pietersen says that a spell away from the England dressing room, analysing his own playing, has been beneficial and “very refreshing”. Has he found things he needed to fix? “Technically no, mentally yes.” And what are they? For the first (and only) time, there is a flash of contempt. “I’m not going to tell you.” He does admit, however, that his own expectations have hindered him: “It’s the standards that I’ve set that probably haven’t helped me, unfortunately.” Then, with unexpected humility: “But I’ll get back there, hopefully.”
The universal hope of Englishmen and women is that this will happen in time for the first Ashes Test. Challenged as to how he thinks this team is better equipped than the 2006-07 side to retain the urn, Pietersen anticipates the question, interrupting as soon as he hears the word ‘better’: “I think we’re more of a team and we all want each other to do well,” he says, decisively. “We were a lot of individuals in Australia last time instead of a team.” The statement is fascinating but not one he will expand upon. The ghost of Andrew Flintoff’s leadership looks on silently, nursing a pint.
Is he happy to accept a lower profile himself? “So what, I’m just part of the team now, is that what you mean? Yeah, I don’t mind, whatever, as long as I’m playing for England I’m not really too fussed. Just playing with a team that can compete is going to be great.”
If he sounds low-key, well, that is the new KP. In the past touring Australia would seem “quite a daunting thing” but now, “it’s just a game of cricket”. He exhales and starts to sound alarmingly laid back. “People make things out to be things they’re not. That’s one thing that’s helped me in my career – not making things bigger than what they are.”
At the suggestion that he is coming across all Zen he says he could not be happier and starts discussing “the cycle of life” and everything being “part of a journey”. Whatever has happened over the last year, he says, “I’m healthy, my wife’s healthy, my baby’s very healthy – I’m not really that fussed.” Family is spoken of in almost wistful terms. His wife Jess has been “amazing, brilliant” in their first six months of caring for their new son, Dylan, and he talks proudly of how “the little man” now sleeps through the night. If this was the old KP, one would suspect him of boasting – my son is the best behaved boy in the world! – but this KP just seems wide-eyed at his good luck.
It is for Jess and Dylan, he says, that he left Hampshire and is now trying to find a contract somewhere closer to his Chelsea home – the odds have to be short on a return to The Oval next year. He wants to be “somewhere I can actually spend time in the dressing room on my days off and give something back to the younger players”. It would be easy to wonder if he is thinking about his benefit. But this Zen KP? Who knows? He remains, to borrow from Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Emma John is a former deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer. She is joint deputy editor of The Observer magazine.