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The sad but inevitable downfall of Kevin Pietersen. A tragedy in two innings.

13 October 2014

7:31 PM

13 October 2014

7:31 PM

Kevin Pietersen’s autobiography is the saddest book of its type I’ve ever read. By its end you begin to think that KP and the ECB deserved each other and realise that, a) no-one deserves that and, b) there’s no way this marriage of convenience – for such it was – could ever have ended happily or with each side fondly wishing the other all the best in their future endeavours.

And it was a contractual arrangement from the very start. Pietersen’s book is clear about that: KP “tried too hard” to fit in with England and Englishness. He now realises South Africa is his “real home” and he should never have pretended to be anything other than “a South African with English heritage”. KP is “English in the way that being English means lots of things” which is kinda true, I guess, but also suggests the only thing that really made KP English was the chance to play international cricket for England.

England, like every other team for whom he has played, was useful to KP until they ceased to be useful to him. At which point he had no choice but to do his own thing. ‘Twas ever thus with Kevin and always will be.

“A team needs to be happy if they want to play well” says Pietersen but that’s not usually the case. Or rather, it’s the other way round. Happiness comes from playing well and in turns spawns the confidence to play well some more. All Kevin ever wanted was to be loved. He’d do the work  – the hard work – to earn some more of that love. But he needed it to be unconditional and forever.

There is pathos and irony aplenty, here. KP’s story is simultaneously unreliable and revealing. We are granted rare access to the mind of a man suffering from a kind of cricketing Aspergers: an impossible genius, impossible in every way.

Unusually for this kind of book, KP – with some assistance from his ghost, David Walsh – makes a case for the prosecution as well as the defence. When Alistair Cook becomes captain and KP is “reintegrated” into the England XI, KP recalls saying to Cook: “‘I want you to be successful’. I told him that again and again.” He never recognises how odd this is: you don’t usually have to tell your captain you hope he – and the team – does well. You can usually, even in cricket, take that for granted. That Pietersen felt the need to stress this  – repeatedly – is itself revealing. The protestation of good faith gives credence to the suggestion that faith had sometimes been lacking in the past.

This isn’t just a question of KP making amends after the embarrassment of his texting banter with his South African friends that led to his temporary exile from the England set-up (it is interesting, by the way, that KP’s ability to recall entire conversations from years ago is not matched by any recollection of the actual details of that banter. On that subject he is unusually coy). Did he want to play for England for the sake of playing for England or to better serve the cause of glorifying Kevin Pietersen and polishing his golden legacy?

“I don’t march in step” he says. “If all you want is to see your team marching in step, if you are just trying to impress the generals above you, I will call you on that.” KP, you see, wants to be one of the boys and he also wants to be treated differently and in ways that better acknowledge his peculiar genius.  But square-bashing isn’t just a question of neatness for the sake of impressing the top brass; it’s about forging a sense of togetherness, of unity, of discipline, even of character. That’s why everyone has to do it; even, especially, if they hate it.

Later we find KP complaining that “I’m not asking for much. I’m asking to occasionally miss warm-up games [and] one-day fixtures”. In other words, KP wants to choose when and where he plays for England. But, fret not, he’s not asking for much. So that’s OK.

Sure, the schedule is brutal and loopy and needs to be changed. Sure, the pressures of living out of a suitcase 250 days a year are considerable. It’s a bloody grind. But it’s the price cricketers pay to be international cricketers. A heavy price, but one that offers some rewards, not to mention the chance of glory and a page or two in the history books.

KP, however, would rather play in the IPL than endure another early season series against bloody New Zealand. He certainly doesn’t want to play in the County Championship, a competition that, while good enough for some, he likens to a “knackered old wildebeest”. Fair enough. I can see why Pietersen loves the shiny, sexy, IPL. It’s fun. April in Derby, with all due respect, might not be. The IPL, he says, is his “little window of pleasure” in an otherwise ghastly existence. But it’s hard to accept complaints about the schedule – and the desire to spend more time with his family – when Pietersen voluntarily adds to the schedule himself. Then again, “The social price of being in the IPL has been high”.

After he’s sacked from the captaincy – a role he admits he should never have been offered but one that was “too good” to turn down (cf Andrew Flintoff) – KP says he “made Straussy’s life as captain a lot easier by knuckling down, despite all that had happened”. Up to a point; KP asks for leave to return home from the West Indies – for 48 hours! – between tests to see his family. He is hurt and much put out when this request is refused. See, KP believes he’d behaved as a professional – all that knuckling down!  – and he thinks he deserves extra credit for, well, behaving like a professional. Come on people, I’m just asking for some allowances to be made.


It must be exhausting being Kevin Pietersen and it must have been exhausting to play with him too. Here he is having “one of those moments” in the second innings against South Africa at Edgbaston in 2008: “I was on 94 and wanted a six to land the century in style. I hit a ball from Paul Harris straight into the paws of AB de Villiers out near the boundary.” England lost by five wickets. Later, in the West Indies, “I got a silly out looking for my century. I hit two sixes and got out trying to hit the next ball for six to bring up my 100.” It’s a kind of inexplicable intellectual cramp.

Sure, that’s the way KP plays. Like it, lump it, or leave it. And, yeah, he can’t explain it either. If the ball’s there to be hit I’m gonna hit it. Right? Fine. Except it’s not the way the greatest of the great batsmen play. They don’t think, You know I’m going to wowza them all by bringing up my ton with a six. They don’t think Bugger the team, this is about what feels good for me. 

That’s just the way Kevin is. Kevin gonna be Kevin and there ain’t no-one who can stop him. Which, again, is fine as far as it goes but you can see why sharing a dressing room with KP must have been a draining business. There he goes again. And again. And again. I can see why his team-mates found the @KPGenius parody Twitter account funny even though, quite plainly, Pietersen has every right to be angry by how little it seemed to trouble the England management.

Genius is often needy, of course, but it is hard to imagine a needier kind of genius than KP. He’s part neurotic spaniel, part Greta Garbo in pads: Why won’t you tell me again how good I am? and Why can’t you just leave me alone?

Even the happy times were gluttonously narcissistic: “For all of my test career so far [until the captaincy], the media had been on my side. More than that: I could do no wrong. There was only one line of questioning: how great is KP? Brilliant? Best ever? Immortal?” A man with greater – or any – self-awareness would be embarrassed to talk like this but that’s not KP’s style. There’s a childish naivete that’s almost winning. Almost, I say.

Despite its unreliable narrator this is a very honest and revealing book. Because, not despite, the nature of the narrator actually. It’s a text to be deconstructed more than it’s a guide to what really happened. At times you begin to wonder if Pietersen is even, in the normal sense of the word, sane.

I mean there’s a scene early on telling a story from last summer. There’s a guy sitting at a table in the players’ family enclosure and he’s bad-mouthing KP and it’s all proving – understandably – awkward for the members of KP’s family who are present. (And not just because Kevin scored a century). So they ask him what brought him to Old Trafford: “James Whitaker [chairman of selectors] had given him the tickets. Aha. So it was reasonable to suggest that Whitaker might agree with what he’s spouting.”

Come again? You can see why KP would be annoyed but no reasonable person can reasonably think it’s reasonable to suppose person B agrees with person A because person A gave person B a ticket to the game.

Then, in the aftermath of the texting business (about which, by the way, KP admits he lied to Strauss, Flower and Hugh Morris), there’s another bizarre slight. “They called me to a hotel in Beaconsfield. I can’t recall the name even though I’ve driven past it so many times since. That’s the sort of hotel it is. Somewhere to put you in your place.”

(Shall we have this meeting at the Ritz? Nah, that’s not the sort of place to put Kevin in his place. OK. How about Beaconsfield? Perfect.)

These are trivial things, I know, but in this kind of book they begin to assume non-trivial status, especially since there are so many examples of this kind of thing. In Pietersen’s world, Flower spent five years trying to get rid of him. Or at least, five years waiting for the chance to do so.

And yet, despite it all, Pietersen makes a persuasive case that there’s been something rotten in the England dressing-room for some time now. England might have been winning more than they were losing but they became a charmless, graceless, surprisingly unlikable side. There was often a boorishness about them and the way they played that proved irksome. Their attitude towards the media – and, via the media, their supporters – was contemptuous.

The game was all about toughness and execution and there was rarely any sign of joy or even enthusiasm. So long as the boxes were ticked and the right areas found everything was fine. Questioning was worse than unhelpful, it was illegitimate. A cocoon was built and, as such structures do, it shut out the light.

There were plenty of disasters too. At home against South Africa. In the UAE against Pakistan and then, finally and most ruinously, in Australia last winter. Pietersen’s analysis of that tour’s shortcomings may be partial (in every sense) but it smells of truth nonetheless.

Not every problem can be solved by another fitness session. KP’s criticism that the tour became an oxygen-free zone seems about right. It pretty quickly became clear that the England tourists were trapped in a stricken submarine, stranded, helpless, on the seabed. It became a matter of time before the pressure told and the body cracked and buckled.

So a clean start. Which required no KP. For reasons best known to their bumbling selves the ECB decided to botch the murder. This was one instance in which doing it quickly – even ruthlessly – in a two minute meeting in another nondescript hotel was worse than letting nature run its course. If nothing else, KP deserved that. however impossible he might have often been, he was hardly the only failure last winter.

Actually, Pietersen could have been dropped – but given a road back – on cricketing grounds. He admits his troublesome knee meant he was only performing at 75% of his ability last winter. The England selectors could easily have said they’d like Kevin to continue playing for England but they wanted him to be properly fit to do so. 100% KP or nothing. For scalp-hunting reasons they chose differently.

They could have asked if Pietersen, who will be 35 this summer, can still be the batsman of greatness he once was. It’s not obvious he can. Even extravagant gifts run out eventually and sometimes the more extravagant they are the quicker they evaporate. In 48 innings since January 2012, Pietersen averaged 38. He made four centuries in that time. A perfectly acceptable record if you’re Paul Collingwood but not so hot if you’re Kevin Pietersen. There’s reason to believe his talents were fading. Not exhausted but fading.

Sure, overall other folk  performed little better during that period but England could have said to KP that, unless there was evidence (ie, weight of runs) to the contrary, they were minded to rebuild around Cook, Bell, Root and Ballance. Still, if KP could stomach playing some county cricket – to prove his fitness, if nothing else – he could perhaps play his way back into the fold.

That would have been better – and fairer – than sacking him because he didn’t feign sufficient enthusiasm in yet another dreary team meeting during which nothing useful was likely to be said because the time for saying useful things had long since passed.

So it has been a sad business. English cricket has long been suspicious of genius and flair and the free-spirited cricketer. Pietersen is neither the first nor last player to discover that. But he made binning him easier than it needed to be. He was complicit in his own downfall. That’s how tragedy goes; that’s what tragedy needs.

 


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