How do you solve a problem like Kevin Pietersen? England’s most talented and most infuriating batsman faces another crisis and, yet again, it is a crisis of his own making. Pietersen’s dispute with the ECB (the cricket authorities, not the European Central Bank) shows every sign of ending his Test Match career. The man himself insists he just wants to play for England yet, puzzlingly, seems to find the business of actually doing so more tedious and complicated than the layman – that is, the supporter – can possibly hope to understand.
Notionally it is a simple business. England would like to offer Pietersen the privilege of batting for England. What could be more handsome than that? This reckons without the complicating matter of the Pietersen Ego, however. The latest sticking point, apparently, is a parody Twitter account that Pietersen would like to see shut down. Worse still, from KP’s perspective, it is reported that he believes some of his team-mates are behind, or at least associated with, the account.
Pietersen is easily bruised but if his colleagues really are connected with a Twitter account that, as you might imagine, is principally concerned with mocking the Pietersen Ego then, on this occasion, he has decent cause to feel betrayed.
Dressing room rifts are scarcely unprecedented and brilliance has never automatically commanded love or even respect. Should you doubt this, consider the histories of Don Bradman or Geoffrey Boycott. Cricket’s peculiarities and the length of time for which players are sequestered together makes the dressing room an ideal habitat for festering resentment and the cultivation of mutual loathing. Given this is true at club level, it is even more evidently the case in the professional ranks.
Pietersen, however, has a gift for this kind of business. For one reason or another he has never found a proper cricketing home. For one reason or another he has been failed by every team for which he has ever played. For one reason or another, Natal, Nottinghamshire and Hampshire all proved unsatisfactory. Now it seems as though England may be added to that list. None of these teams has paid proper tribute to KP’s genius; none have been able to understand him properly. Pietersen is big; perhaps it’s the cricket that got small.
That is one theory and one endorsed by Pietersen’s supporters. Doubtless there is some truth to it but Pietersen’s problems are so regular that one begins to wonder whether the player himself might be a contributor to his own difficulties.
Yet I’ve always believed that Pietersen’s high-altitude self-regard has been a mask for a deeper, darker insecurity. Behind all that imperial swagger lies the still, small voice of a slave reminding the emperor that it could all have been very different and, hell, could yet end badly. Worse still, much though he’d like to dismiss such perturbation, the emperor fears the damn slave might just have some kind of point.
I suspect Pietersen has willed himself to believe in the ineffability of his own genius because the thought of failure – and rejection – is too much to bear. Yet such concerns can never be banished entirely. Witness the manner in which Pietersen often starts his innings. He is a model of jaunty anxiety until he gets off the mark. That first run is balm to all batsmen of course but in Pietersen’s case it seems to come with an extra-deep sigh of relief and the blessed promise that now everything will be quite alright. This is genius that craves reassurance. Constantly.
This must make him an infuriating team-mate. Pietersen parades his genius and insists you pay due tribute to it. Unkind as it may be, one can imagine former (and perhaps some current) team-mates celebrating Pietersen’s failures much as Bill O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton chuckled and cheered when Eric Hollies rooked Don Bradman for a duck in the Don’s last test innings.
One fancies Pietersen doesn’t have much time for irony. Which is unfortunate given that he plays a sport that is loaded with the stuff. Nor can one imagine Pietersen enduring, far less enjoying, the kind of bubble-popping dressing room banter for centuries has been a part of the game. KP does not understand jokes made at KP’s expense, you know. Hence his desire to have his twittering alter-ego suppressed. (A wish, incidentally, that should not be granted. Parody, clearly labelled as such, is, well, only parody.)
Indeed, as may often be the way with genius (and Pietersen has some genius) you have the sense that Pietersen lacks what we now call “emotional intelligence”. Empathy or the ability to see himself as others see him is not one of KP’s longer suits. Indeed, it may be a void. He asks us to believe his troubles are ‘absolutely 100% not about money,’ even as he demands to be released from the unglamorous task of facing New Zealand next May so he may play in the more lucrative, shinier, IPL.
‘It’s tough being me playing for England,’ he says pitifully, adding to the impression that the Pietersen Ego, while undoubtedly real, is also a suit of armour needed to protect KP from just the normal slings and arrows of life in the public eye. There is some pathos here, you know. Pietersen demands to be loved but one senses he knows he is merely admired and that this, like so much else, wounds him.
Pietersen says it’s ‘no problem’ when the media portray him as the ‘bad guy’ and here again one has the impression of a man determined to persuade himself to believe in something he knows isn’t quite true.
If there’s anything to this it means Pietersen is the kind of man-child who tries the patience of even the most sensitive or supportive captain. He is not – at least not yet – more trouble than he’s worth but he seems determined to test that proposition too. He must, surely, often be an exhausting, almost insufferable team-mate. Perhaps he needs a Brearley, not a Flower.
The Australians had it right when they named him FIGJAM. Fuck I’m Good, Just Ask Me honours KP’s excellence only to cut him to the quick. I doubt Pietersen finds this mockery funny, no matter how much he protests his indifference or vows his bat will do the bloody talking.
Pietersen is a very good cricketer. We know it and he knows we know it and it’s still not quite enough. This is the sadness of his present situation and even his batting isn’t quite enough to save Kevin Pietersen from the troubles of being Kevin Pietersen. And so, absent some shift in fortune or attitude, it seems a matter of when not if his Test career comes to a sad, unnecessary, premature conclusion and the responsibility for that unhappiness must rest more heavily on Pietersen’s shoulders than on anyone else’s. A pity.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.