“Under marble Millichip the F.A. broods
On how flair can be punished”
The Fall ‘Kicker Conspiracy’
It’s unlikely that you can have a conversation about Kevin Pietersen without somebody bringing up the word ‘arrogant’. This unquantifiable characteristic, as evident as the flash of white that ran through his hair when he made his England debut, has come to define Pietersen’s career in a way that no statistic or entry in Wisden is ever likely to match.
The long and the short of the situation is that, no matter how many glorious innings Pietersen played, how many of the world’s greatest bowlers he has rocked back on his heels to and dispatched to the boundary rope, it was always with a cockiness, a brashness which was thoroughly unEnglish.
Think back to the 2005 Ashes, the seminal test series that sparked the kind of interest and enthusiasm you normally only experience in England when the football team reach the knock-out stages of an international tournament.
Everything that happened in that series, all the moments of English triumph, were on the line on that last day of the 5th test at The Oval. 2-1 up in the series, England found themselves 133 ahead with 5 wickets down in their 2nd innings at the lunch break. When Pietersen came out to bat, England’s new found ability to get one over on the Australians had not yet extinguished the memories of English batting collapses of recent years.
It was, in retrospect, a situation ripe for Pietersen, and one that brought about a sea change in English cricket. This was not an innings of stoicism or caution, he could have been out caught 3 times for the want of safer Australian hands, perhaps an early warning of the rashness that would mark much of his later career and frustrate fans as often as it would delight. As it was, Pietersen embraced the moment with a disregard for the pressure and momentousness of what was at stake that verged on blithe indifference, knocking off his maiden test century, securing the draw for England and the safe return of the urn for the first time in a generation.
If this was arrogance, it was precisely what English cricket needed.
Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, appearing the next day bleary-eyed and dishevelled at the door of 10. Downing Street for an audience with the Prime Minister, unconcerned with such formalities as sleep after an all-night drinking session, were at the vanguard of this new phase for the national team. Cricket had a swagger for the first time in my lifetime, we had, for want of a better expression, found our mojo.
If much of the game is concerned with the seconds between the release of the ball from the bowlers arm and the outcome as it reaches the bat, some thought must still be given over to those moments that us, as fans, can only speculate on. The sledging and the psychological battles that had been the domain of Botham and Brearley in the 80s was ground that seemed to have been surrendered by their English successors in the 1990s, but, with that 2005 Ashes win, the message couldn’t have been clearer: England would no longer be cowed by the Australians. With Pietersen and Freddie in the side, we were capable of giving just as good as we got.
In future Ashes series, the good times rolled, England weren’t scared any more, and even a whitewashing down under in 2006/2007 couldn’t knock the confidence out of them. Flintoff acknowledged his other-wordly spell of bowling on the final morning at Lords with messianic outstretched arms and a nodding of the head as Australian wickets fell in 2009. James Anderson, after being sledged by Mitchell Johnson, ran in, took a wicket and then turned to Johnson with his finger to his lips in the Ashes victory in Australia in 2010/11. The same tour where the England team incorporated the sprinkler dance as their signature move, first in Youtube videos then, bold as brass, on the pitch at Sydney.
And yet, it was still Pietersen, in the eyes of the public, who was the arrogant one. While Flintoff’s delight in demonstrating his superiority over opponents (“mind the windows, Tino”), was easy to accept for England fans, Pietersen was still marked as an outsider. The South African who played for his adopted country for pragmatic, rather than patriotic reasons, will always be harder to fully embrace than a homegrown firebrand.
If the perceived preference for bringing up landmark scores with a boundary rather than racking up singles, which brought a premature end to more than one innings, was a problem, so too were Pietersen’s off the field drams.
But, his bust up with England coach Peter Moores and the loss of the England captaincy in 2009 said as much about the ECB as it did Pietersen himself. It was, perhaps, the first major misstep by the governing body in their handling of their superstar. One surefire way of ensuring that the maverick in your camp is not kept under control is by placing him in charge of the whole shindig.
The incident was emblamatic of the ECB’s overall attitude to Pietersen, they knew he was good, but they were damned if they knew exactly what to do with him.
Such is the inherent tension in having Kevin Pietersen in your team. If he is managed well, there are few batsman in the world you would rather have around. In times of less sure-footed management, however, he can quickly spiral out of control. There would have been far fewer complaints from England fans, had the ECB given Pietersen the boot after the ‘textgate’ farce of 2012, and yet it was Alastair Cook who chose to bring him back into the fold on assuming the captaincy.
In the wake of his sacking by the ECB last week, Paul Downton and his colleagues at the helm of English cricket have sent out the signal that they are not so much entering a brave new world for English cricket, as throwing in the towel.
It would perhaps be too glib to mark Pietersen’s exclusion from the England team as the end of an era of English spark which was kickstarted in 2005, but the signs are abound that English cricket is entering a new, far more circumspect, phase, unsure of themselves after the dismal drubbing in Australia this winter.
And yet, the spark is not quite gone with the exit of Pietersen. Those of us who stayed up to watch the final test of the recent Ashes series could not help raising a smile as, Mitchell Johnson – rehabilitated from bad joke to classical fearsome fast bowler – was bowled by Ben Stokes and, as he walked off, was on the receiving end of a fixed glare from the Durham all-rounder and the words “have that, twat”.
For Pietersen, though, the game is up. It is said that while your team is winning then the antics of a maverick may be tolerated but, when the chips are down, there is no room for someone who doesn’t conform. This may be true but, from another perspective, in times of introspection after such a humiliating Ashes annihilation, for the England management, it may be that they felt ditching such a mercurial talent as Pietersen’s was the path of least resistance.
Any sportsperson who earns the label of maverick will rub up against those further up in the hierarchy. In baseball, the Boston Red Sox had a phrase for the antics of mercurial slugger Manny Ramirez: “Manny being Manny”. It seems now that, rather than one specific incident leading to his exclusion, the ECB are no longer prepared to tolerate Kevin being Kevin.