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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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