When one sits down to reflect on the career of Kevin Pietersen, who today announced his full retirement, it will be easy for anyone who has followed the game during this period to remember his brilliance at the crease. A flamboyance to his stroke-play comparable to the elegance of Tennis’ Roger Federer, Football’s Leo Messi, or NBA’s LeBron James. An otherworldly mastery over a technical complexity many like to term ‘natural ability’, bringing consummate ease to a discipline where so many rise and fall.
Easy it will also be, however, to remember the other reasons he so frequently made the headlines on both front and back pages of the press. With the fiery flamboyance, flashy haircuts (yes, cricket had awful haircuts before Pogba came along) and an all-too-often confrontational personality, came the controversies that marred what surely should have gone on to be the most prolific career of any English cricketer.
It all unravelled at great speed in the Summer of 2012, amid the infamous ‘textgate’ scandal whilst England were on tour in South Africa, ultimately leading to his removal from the side. It ended permanently from an International point of view two years later in 2014 after a shocking team performance throughout the Ashes Down Under, not to mention rumours that once again, he had contributed to the downfall of then coach Andy Flower.
That can be discussed shortly, however. England fans began to detect the salty side effects of his combative nature almost half a decade prior to his first omission from the side. The 2008/09 season proved to be one of extreme highs and lows for the South-Africa born batsmen. In August 2008 he received the great honour of replacing Michael Vaughan as the permanent captain during a poor series against the Proteas. Despite losing the Test series 2-1, he hit a remarkable century on debut as Test captain, and followed up by leading his One-Day side to a resounding 4-0 win shortly after.
It was during a dismal drubbing in India, however, when Pietersen’s captaincy derailed. Following his side’s 5-0 defeat on the Subcontinent, it was alleged that England’s captain had more than ‘helped’ edge his coach Peter Moores out of his job, with it clear that relations between the pair had crashed, to say the least. The debacle also saw the player himself resign his captaincy, the perhaps more devoted Andrew Strauss stepping up to the mark.
Here, it is worth noting the role that Pietersen played during his short-lived stint at captaincy. Often, there is a continuum of success despite change in leadership. Let’s look at Barcelona FC’s remarkable achievements over the past decade. Their first team has been coached by no fewer than 6 managers, and although they have not swept all before them in terms of trophies on every single occasion, by and large they have secured at least one major title each season. Of course, this is as much down to the personnel as the management, but it is all too clear that when the team’s performances have dipped, a change in management has revitalised the players whilst continuing high-level performances.
In cricket, this transition is rarely as straightforward. Cycles of success are far shorter for the most part; it only seems like the blinking of an eye between hailing England’s greatness after beating Australia in the Summer before being handed a thrashing the following Winter. The captains that do last are often some of the most revered figures in the sport. Who can talk about the West Indies of the 70’s without mentioning Clive Lloyd? Or the all-conquering Australians of the 90’s and 00’s without Steve Waugh, or Ricky Ponting?
Kevin Pietersen was not so lucky. He did not have the legendary teammates of Lloyd, or Waugh. His predecessor, Michael Vaughan won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years. Pietersen’s subsequent replacements in Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook went on to become the first captain to win Home and Away Ashes series since Mike Gatting in 1986, and the highest scoring English batsman in Test history, respectively. History will not look back on his captaincy warmly.
Fast-forward to ‘textgate’ in 2012.
Despite having laid his hat with England, having being born a South African (far from uncommon), and having been vilified by his former compatriots for doing so, he reverted to type by sending defamatory texts about his captain (Strauss) and coach (Flower) to members of the opposition (ironically, South Africa). These texts were leaked (surely the most common phrase in this digital age?) and, after a suspension for the third and final Test match, he was eventually sacked from the side.
In true 21st Century fashion, Pietersen has since released a tell-all book, admitting his involvement in the incident. Not shying away from causing more controversy (and selling more copies), he claims that Strauss and the ECB “milked” the situation in order to get him out of the side.
Satisfied that Pietersen’s image had been disgraced just enough to narrow his ego an inch or two, the ECB saw fit to cut short his exile just a few months later. He remained, after all, their best player. This should have been the jolt that England’s talisman needed to straighten out his act. A lesser player would surely not have been handed this olive branch so easily, if at all.
For some, however, especially for those whose ability falls at their feet seemingly so easily, further controversy could not be avoided. After slipping to what has rather unfortunately become a traditional 5-0 whipping in Australia, it was widely viewed by many that his behind-the-scenes behaviour had contributed to the dismissal of coach Andy Flower. A case of another series, another sacking for England. When the squad for the following series was announced, with the news that Pietersen had been left out, it quickly surfaced that his career with England was now over. A whimper of an end to a firecracker of an international era.
Over the years since his permanent rejection from the side, many have been quick to comment on a career that could have been; a talent cut short on the greatest stage due to his own inabilities to control his urge for the limelight.
Having grown up watching England play Test cricket in the 90’s, what is surely one of the direst, dullest periods in the country’s history, I longed for players to represent England with the genius of Lara, the brilliance of Tendulkar and countless others who seemed to litter every side but ours. Instead, I was left watching the likes of Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain (both fine players in their own right, admittedly), grind their way to becoming the second-worst country in the world at the back end of the 1990’s. Whilst the results improved at the turn of the millenium, it was not until the rejuvenated sides of the mid-2000’s that English Test cricket at last became entertaining. Yes, the Ashes-winning side of 2005 was packed with talent and energy right the way through. But it was the man enjoying his debut series who would go on to light up English cricket over the next few years.
As anticipation bubbles among those in the stadium when Messi receives the ball, or Federer starts whipping those forehands, Pietersen brought excitement to cricket as very few could when he was at his flowing best.
Often, he was careless with his wicket, throwing it away too cheaply with an overly lavish attempt to demonstrate his ability. Time and again, however, it would be his ferocity with the bat that would take the game away from the opposition, whilst doing it in a way that had the supporters on their feet.
As England’s most recent stalwart, Alastair Cook, rose to prominence at the turn of the decade, it can be argued that Pietersen’s influence on a team that he helped to shape was beginning to dwindle, and he fast became a figure that was deemed too problematic in the dressing room, regardless of his ability out in the middle. Cook provided the much needed steel to the team; far happier spending days at the crease building mammoth totals than risking his wicket for a showy shot that might bring a few quick runs. It is this mentality that, up until recently, saw him captain England to several key successes at home and abroad, as well as become England’s record run scorer in Tests. At the age of 33, who is to say he will not one day oust Sachin Tendulkar as the leader run scorer in the history of world Test cricket?
Let us not forget, however, that before the genius of Pietersen, fans of English cricket endured nigh-on 20 years of, at best, mediocrity, and at worst, a whole lot worse. Our slim source of success came in the One-Day format of the game, whilst the teams tasked with provided us with hope in the format which we laud so greatly, consistently fell short.
It was the canvas of Kevin Pietersen, with colour in his hair and artistry from his bat, that provided the much-needed injection of life into English cricket, and let’s hope we do not forget the light side of what has been a stellar career.