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?

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

— 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)