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.

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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