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England expects: the return of Kevin Pietersen

A good mate of mine refers to England cricketer Kevin Pietersen as “Big Prinz”, a song from The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj album which features the classic Mark E Smith lyrical refrain “He is nuts-ah!” (KP, nuts, geddit?). It’s an appropriate nickname for reasons that go beyond the obvious nutty bar snack association with Pietersen’s initials.

From the moment Pietersen made his test match debut at Lord’s against Australia in 2005, he dominated the crease with his Botham-esque self-belief and imposing Flintoff-ian physical stature. While supporters could sense the pride he took in representing his adopted country, they also enjoyed the fact that there was something wholly un-English about his behaviour. He refused to be intimidated by the sense of occasion. He dished out the abuse when opponents dared to sledge him. He regally counter-attacked against the best bowlers in the world. And, most importantly, he made big match-winning innings when it counted. Almost instantly, he became the biggest figure in English cricket. That is, until someone at the ECB decided he needed taking down a peg or two.

Dressing room leaks have seen him labelled a loner and were responsible for the decision to take the England captaincy from him after just six turbulent months.

Pietersen spent the first half of 2009 looking, in the words of Avon Barksdale, like a man without a country. Separated from his teammates by his own talent and the circus that surrounded him, it was almost a relief when he succumbed to an achilles injury that gave him a much-needed break from the game.

Fit again, Pietersen has rejoined England as they embark on their tour of South Africa. Only a fool would believe he won’t walk straight back into the team when the one day series begins. But while many believe we will see characteristic bombast when he walks out to bat in South Africa, I wonder if Pietersen’s experiences over the last 18 months have left him emotionally scarred.

Look at it this way, Pietersen’s technique is idiosyncratic. Although he bats with intelligence and thought – witness his ability to use his crease and alter his stance when troubled by pace or spin – Pietersen’s unique shot-making and dominant batting style relies, at least to some degree, on boundless self-belief. Up until the point where he accepted the England captaincy, it’s a good bet he’d never questioned or compromised himself in any way as a cricketer. I believe being deposed as England captain left deeper scars on Pietersen’s psyche than anyone will ever realise. It was the first time he hadn’t made a success of a situation he believed to be under his control (remember, it was the quota system that stopped him from being a star for South Africa). It was the first time he had openly and embarrassingly failed.

For this, the ECB must take the blame. They fudged the captaincy issue in the autumn of 2006 when, with Michael Vaughan injured, they passed over Andrew Strauss, who had just guided England to a home series victory against Pakistan, and made Andrew Flintoff skipper for the ill-fated Ashes tour. They overburdened Flintoff, the team’s best player, and lost the series 5-0.

In the summer of 2008, when the captaincy issue rose again following the retirement of Michael Vaughan, the ECB failed to heed the lesson and handed the reins to KP. At that time, there were no other choices as Strauss was out of the one day side and going through a terrible run of form in the test arena. Had Strauss been appointed in late 2006, the England team would have enjoyed the stable leadership that led to this summer’s Ashes victory. Plus, their two most talented players, Flintoff and Pietersen, would have been left free to perform without the pressure of the captaincy.

The ECB must have known that Pietersen as captain would lead to problems. For his part, KP looked like a man out of his depth, immediately insisting on the appointment of a new coach (tellingly, Kent’s South African coach Graham Ford who he had worked with before) and demanding former skipper Michael Vaughan be included in the tour party for the 2009 West Indies tour. He wanted expertise around him because he was already unsure of his ability to lead. As things turned out, he would lose the captaincy before setting foot on the plane.

Did being ousted as captain hamper Pietersen’s performance when he returned to the ranks of England’s middle order in the spring of 2009? Although he made a few forties and fifties against the West Indies and in the Twenty20 World Cup, the sense of dominance and permanance at the crease were gone. The achilles injury did play a part, but so did the fact that he had been betrayed by his employers. Losing the captaincy through no fault of his own (the ECB later went on record backing up Pietersen’s assertion that he did not leak the story of his rift with coach Peter Moores to the media) robbed Pietersen of his instinctive and domineering South African style of play. Thanks to the ECB, he suddenly looked like a typical English batter, reactive and riddled with self-doubt.

If England are to be successful in South Africa, Andrew Strauss needs Kevin Pietersen to come back having used his six-month break from cricket to allow his psychological scars to heal. With Strauss and new coach Andy Flower flush from Ashes victory, Pietersen’s return to the England dressing room should be a smooth one. This is no longer a one or two man team. Flintoff is gone. The likes of Strauss, Graeme Swann and (on occasion) Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad have announced themselves on the international stage. The success or failure of the England team no longer depends on whether Pietersen flays the opposition bowling to every corner of the ground or gets out first ball to a good delivery. To help England be successul in South Africa, all Kevin Pietersen needs to do is rediscover how to be himself.

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Brett Favre and the most infamous traitors in sport

NFL legend Brett Favre was subjected to a cathedral of catcalls and jeers when he took the field for the Minnesota Vikings against the Green Bay Packers, the team with whom he made his name. The fans at Lambeau Field had waited two years and two aborted retirements to vent their frustrations over the way Favre seemingly extricated himself from Green Bay after the 2007 season.

Favre was Green Bay’s favourite son. He bought the city a Super Bowl triumph in 1996, broke numerous NFL records as a Packer and provided more dramatic finishes and comebacks than any other NFL player. But when he retired in tears in 2007 only to unretire within weeks to play for the New York Jets, some of that goodwill was extinguished. Yesterday we found out just how much. While there were pockets of appreciation for Favre when he took the field, they were drowned out by swathes of booing each time he was involved in the action.

Always one for a flair for the dramatic, Favre got the last laugh, throwing for 244 yards and four touchdowns as the Vikings triumphed 38-26 over his former team. In honour of Favre’s return to Green Bay, the Sports Bloke takes a look at more sporting stars who turned their backs on their teams and examines what happened when they returned to their former homes.

Paul Ince
Say what you like about fans of Premier League football club West Ham United, but don’t deny they have any competition when it comes to holding grudges. Self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ Paul Ince was a product of the club’s youth academy and an England star in the making. In 1988, he decided he wanted to play for a bigger club. Rather than go the traditional route of lodging a transfer request, Ince instead chose to pose for the newspapers in a Man U shirt long before the deal had been finalised. Having forced West Ham’s hand, Ince got his big money move to Old Trafford. He probably didn’t anticipate the two decades of dogs abuse, incessant booing and Judas chants he faced whenever he played against West Ham for Manchester United, Liverpool and Wolves.
Hammers fans didn’t even let it go after Ince retired as a player. He received his now-traditional welcome as manager of Blackburn Rovers when he bought his team to Upton Park in 2008. Before this game, Ince commented that he felt, 20 years after his minor indiscretion, that the abuse was almost good-natured now. Sorry Paul, you’re wrong. You’re still hated at West Ham and here’s a measure of how much. When I was last betrayed by a good friend, I changed his name in my mobile to Ince. And it stayed that way for two years until things got sorted out.

Kevin Pietersen
Some players are reviled for turning against their clubs, cricketer Kevin Pietersen was accused of turning against his own country. Frustrated by the lack of international opportunities available to him in his native South Africa, KP moved to Nottinghamshire to play county cricket. Once he qualified to represent England, it seemed fitting his first major one day series came in his homeland. Every time Pietersen walked out to bat in the series, he received a barrage of boos, jeers and catcalls by sell out crowds of up to 50,000 angry South African fans. It was his reaction to the abuse marked him out as a special player. The caludron of hate didn’t make him quake, it merely strengthened his resolve. Pietersen reeled off scores of 108 in Bloemfontein (where the crowd turned their backs to him when he returned to the pavilion), 75 in Cape Town, 100 of 69 balls in East London and 116 at Centurion.

Sol Campbell
Sol Campbell was so revered by Tottenham Hotpsur fans that it’s probably fair to say that, faced with staying with the under-achieving North London side or moving to a more successful team playing Champions League football when his contract expired, there wouldn’t have been too many complaints if he’d chosen to leave. After all, he’d given Spurs over a decade of loyal service. He could have gone to Italy or Spain and Tottenham fans would have wished him well. They might have grumbled a bit if he’d signed with Manchester United or Liverpool. The only move that would provoke anger would be if he signed with London rivals Arsenal. But that wasn’t an issue because Sol had already said there was no way he could ever play for the Gunners given his long history with Spurs.
And then he signed for Arsenal. The reaction to Campbell when he returned to White Hart Lane as an Arsenal player was bitter and abusive. It continued whenever he went back, culminating in fan arrests over a chant directed at the England star which contained the delightful rhyming of the phrase ‘swinging from a tree’ with the insult ‘Judas C*** with HIV’. Campbell is a lying traitor to Spurs fans, but that chant is all kinds of wrong.

Roger Clemens
In 2001, Bill Simmons wrote an ESPN column explaining why, in the eyes of Boston Red Sox fans, pitcher Roger Clemens was the antichrist. After 12 seasons in Boston, Clemens slapped Red Sox in the face by moving to Toronto for money and then holding a press conference in which he failed to make a single reference to his former club. The slap in the face became a full boot to the nether-regions when he forced Toronto to trade him to New York in 1999 to play for Boston’s hated rivals the Yankees. And don’t forget, when the 2000 MLB All-Star game was played at Fenway Park, Clemens again ignored the obvious chance to pay tribute to his former fans, choosing to wear a Yankee cap instead of a Red Sox one. And so, Clemens was given the bird by Boston fans every time he stepped foot in Fenway over the next eight years. Post-retirement steroid and adultery accusations ensured they got the last laugh.
Simmons sums up the feelings to Clemens by saying “No athlete ever let me down quite like Roger Clemens did. Fortunately, we can take solace at the potential sight of Clemens standing on the field at New Fenway, maybe 40 years from now, being introduced on Old Timer’s Day 2041 … and getting showered with boos from Red Sox fans. “I can’t believe they still haven’t let this go,” he’ll mumble to himself, a thin smile spread across his face, oblivious to the bitter end, still waiting for the fans to come around. Not a chance.”

Elton Brand
It remains to be seen what kind of reaction NBA star Elton Brand will get when he eventually returns to Los Angeles to play against his former team the Clippers. It’s probably a good bet he’ll get booed out of the building. Here’s why. Brand was instrumental in convincing Baron Davis, then starring for the running and gunning Golden State Warriors, to move to LA. As soon as Davis inked his new contract, Brand announced he was off to Philadelphia to play for the 76ers after his negotiations with the Clippers broke down for vague, unspecified reasons, leaving Baron without help on one of the NBA’s most cursed and under-achieveing rosters.
Is there karma at work on this one? Maybe? After a rickety start with Philly, Brand went down injured and disappeared for the season. The 76ers played better without him. The Clippers recorded just 19 wins but won the draft lottery and picked up college phenom Blake Griffin. Of course, it being the Clippers, Griffin was injured in pre-season and is currently on the DL for the next 20 games.

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