Will to power: Pietersen works his way towards a double century against India at Lord's, July 2011. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty.
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Kevin Pietersen: the man who fell to earth

Kevin Pietersen willed himself to become an Englishman, and is as troubled as he is gifted. But who is he? And will we miss him now that he is banished from the team?

— Five years ago, researching a book about Fortune, I came across the following paragraph in a scholarly essay about Renaissance conduct. The author was defining a particular type of Renaissance man, the so-called fortunato, or “Fortunate One”. It read:

The Fortunate Man, unlike the virtuous man, does not need a code of conduct; he has only to follow his impulses and be carried to the highest goals … The fortunati often lose their occult powers when they begin to study or try to work out a course of action … In all they do, they act without caution and close their ears to advice and admonition. They violate all dictates of reason and prudence, and yet they never fail.

In the margin, I wrote one word: “Pietersen”.

I had played with and against the brilliant but troubled South African-turned-English cricketer. As a fellow player, I deeply respected his talent. Later, when I was a commentator, it was his innings I wanted to describe.

I have never seen any batsman impose his willpower as Pietersen could. Where Sachin Tendulkar was a genius of skill, Pietersen is a genius of self-belief. His confidence and desire filled the whole arena, relegating the other players to the status of pawns. He could be gauche and socially awkward, but that doesn’t explain why people took against him. There was something more innately domineering about Pietersen, a quality that transcended language or manners, as though he could succeed only by putting other people down.

Now he has gone. Celebrated but isolated, heroic but exiled, tattooed with badges of modernity but strangely out of step with the times, Kevin Pietersen, who is 33, has been kicked out of the England cricket team without appeal. He has been dropped, without hope of a recall. In normal cir­cumstances, a glimmer of hope survives. Not for Pietersen.

Along the way he notched up a remarkable list of firsts. In his first top-flight one-day series as an England batsman in 2005, he scored three dazzling hundreds in South Africa, the country of his birth. Later that same year, he helped inspire England’s first Test series win over Australia in 18 years. In 2008, he scored a century in his first match as England captain. Statistically he is the most prolific England batsman of all time. He did it all with rare instinct and style.

II — Pietersen’s relationship with English cricket is often described as a marriage of convenience – advantageous to both parties while it lasted, but loveless. Perhaps it was even colder than that. I doubt Pietersen ever truly loved cricket – not in the way Roger Federer loves tennis – let alone English cricket. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he was infatuated with the things cricket could do for him. Pietersen was going places and cricket could take him there. The game became the conduit for ambition on an epic scale. Perhaps there is a fairer term than ambition: his need.

At the end of 2003, aged 26, I was dropped from the England Test team and found myself on the England A tour to India (for A, read B). Pietersen was also on that tour, his first taste of playing in an England shirt, a year before his elevation to the full England team. We sat next to each other on the plane. For much of the trip he listened to loud house music on his portable player. In the clouds above Afghanistan, he took off his headphones and struck up conversation, a dialogue that seemed to have been running for some time inside his own head. “This is how I’m going to play Pollock,” he said, going into a technical analysis of how to combat the great South African opening bowler. “And this is how I’m going to play Kallis.” On he went, going through the South Africa bowling line-up.

“But Kev,” I eventually replied, “aren’t we about to play in India?” “Yes,” he replied, “but in a year’s time I’ll be on the full England tour to South Africa.”

There was something almost honourable about such unapologetically blunt ambition. For the record, one year later, he attacked the South African bowlers in that one-day series in South Africa with sensational daring. Booed and taunted as a traitor when he walked out to bat, Pietersen, who was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, silenced the crowd with three unforgettable centuries in just five innings. He took exceptional risks in every hundred; yet it seemed impossible he would fail (a true sign of the fortunati). England lost the series, but Pietersen had arrived.

By then, however, nothing could surprise me about him. In India, standing at the non-striker’s end, I’d watched him play a different game from the rest of us. Though I’ve played alongside Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and Carl Hooper, I’ve never seen batting as good as Pietersen’s on that trip. Certainty underpinned everything he did: certainty of stroke, certainty of conviction, certainty of career trajectory. By the end of the tour, I was just as clear as he was about one central fact: Pietersen was going to be a great player. In fact, he already was.

Back in England, several leading journalists encouraged me to agree with their view that he was fallible, that his technique was flawed, that his confidence was brittle. I told everyone who would listen that he was one of the best I’d seen.

I found myself sympathetic to Pietersen’s position again in late 2008, when he was sacked as England captain. His mistake had been to overplay his hand. Like several of the senior players, he wanted the coach, Peter Moores, to be replaced. But Pietersen had neither the patience nor the political skill to hide the strength of his feelings. He blundered into an ultimatum. As a result, both Moores and Pietersen were sacked. But what had the England and Wales Cricket Board expected when it appointed him as captain? A consensus-building diplomat? No, the ECB deliberately opted for his arrogance and insouciance, then recoiled from it. In effect, Pietersen was appointed captain for being Pietersen and then sacked for being Pietersen. He never trusted English cricket again, nor vice versa.

 Photo: Camera Press

III — Then, as now, the furore over Pietersen’s treatment opened up the fault lines that run through English sport. This final sacking has morphed into a referendum on the establishment. To his critics, Pietersen is a man who eventually falls out with everyone, a non-team player, unreliable at a far deeper level than his performance on the pitch. In finally reaching this position, the ECB joins a long list of employers and institutions that ultimately could no longer find a home for him.

Pietersen’s allies rail against the English suspicion of mavericks and flair, the triumph of company men, the complacent persecution of a misunderstood outsider, the hint of tall-poppy syndrome. Pietersen has found supporters in unusual places, people who might not warm to him personally but hold an even greater grudge against the establishment. More predictably he has become a magnet for the media’s self-styled tribunes of the people – not that they have helped him.

He is also a hero to a very different constituency: those who are in awe of him. During Pietersen’s exile in 2012 – when he was essentially suspended after sending unflattering texts about the then England captain, Andrew Strauss, to opposition players – civilised opinion sided with Strauss. Yet there is something about Pietersen that many fans, even intelligent ones who understand that there is a team dimension to cricket, find irresistible.

IV — Throughout the winter of 2013-2014, as England slumped to a 5-0 defeat in Australia, the press corps struggled with whether or not to report the existence of a new force in the English game. To ignore it was professional negligence, because it had become an unavoidable part of the story, but to acknowledge it in print would only encourage a self-publicist who had latched on to cricket (a subject about which he is inexpert though enthusiastic) partly to serve his own ends. It’s time to talk about Piers Morgan.

During and after the Ashes, Morgan used the platform of Twitter to mount ad hominem attacks on members of the England team. Every losing team knows it will cop plenty of criticism, but this was different. Morgan had access to privileged information. He used a sledgehammer to make his point. Pietersen was the misunderstood genius. The management were callous cretins bent on his destruction. Not untypically, Morgan recently described the present captain, Alastair Cook, widely regarded as a man of integrity, as “a repulsive little weasel”. Morgan is a friend of Pietersen’s.

Now a television personality based in America, Morgan has increasingly behaved as though he is Pietersen’s public relations agent. As a gifted polemicist used to dealing with far savvier opponents than cricket insiders, Morgan has been able to dominate many of his media debates about Pietersen. Even David Cameron, unwisely drawn into expressing an opinion about cricket selection, said he thought that Morgan had made “quite a powerful argument” about Pietersen’s sacking.

Pietersen’s England career was not in the gift of Downing Street; he needed the support of the English cricket hierarchy. Morgan’s PR “victories” certainly accelerated Pietersen’s demise; to the men who mattered, they reinforced the perception that Pietersen could not be trusted. Perhaps Morgan thought he was helping his pal, and simply misjudged the situation. Or perhaps he calculated that however things panned out for Pietersen, more people would end up talking about Piers Morgan.

Pietersen’s sacking has been interpreted as the fall of a sportsman who has run out of friends. It is sadder than that. It wasn’t just the friends he lacked that did for Pietersen, but the friends he had. For all his gifts, he was let down by his judgement of people. The old warning “Beware your follower”, a couple of thousand years older than Twitter, has rarely been more apt.

Far more balanced observers than Morgan have also interpreted Pietersen’s demise in terms of a clash of personalities, arguing that England should have been prepared to “manage” him. This time, however, that view is hard to sustain. Pietersen has now clashed with just about everyone: a long list of captains, coaches and employers.

The unavoidable logic is that something in the man, innate and essential, steered his England career towards its premature end. I am very sad about that because I, too, loved watching him play. But sadness should not bleed into sentimentality. Those who sacked Pietersen will all be judged according to the results of the England team. They have a lot of skin in the game. And yet they believed, with growing certainty, that Pietersen’s indifference was eating away at the team. Pride – which great teams foster to an almost irrational degree – cannot easily share a room with indifference. That is why no one could make a case for Pietersen staying. In the end, that is the evidence that counts.

Most sportsmen seek achievement – glory, too, and a measure of fame. But after a while, once the initial infatuation with adulation has passed, it is often the respect of their peers that sustains top athletes. Piet­ersen was different. He was compelled to greatness, never really encouraged towards it by others. His game was powered by his own desires.

I’ve often wondered what advice, if I’d been England coach watching his productivity wane, might have made a difference to Pietersen. The best I could come up was something like this: “You remember the man who was booed out to the middle in South Africa in 2005 and yet smashed the bowlers for three hundreds, all with controlled, violent certainty? Remember the England debutant who top-scored in both innings at Lord’s in that first Test against Australia, never feeling a moment of vertigo? Some force drove that man. Find it again, channel it, direct it.”

But I doubt it is still there. Then is not now. Then he was hungry and unknown, now he is famous and extremely rich. In between, he has been revered and, just as importantly, rejected. As such, the world has revealed itself as, one senses, he always imagined it would. It has acquiesced in the willpower of Kevin Pietersen, but uncomfortably so, before recoiling from the force of his personality. That is why he will feel, all the way to the end, that he has been proved right.

Abundantly, ridiculously gifted, an outsider cursed with a persecution complex, needy and exhaustingly egotistical, Pietersen never quite found a home for his heroism. He is back where he started, an exiled gun for hire.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” is published by Bloomsbury (£8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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