Although it has been on the cards for a while, Kevin Pietersen finally announced his retirement at the weekend. Forgive me for being a bit late to the party on this one. As someone who rarely watches the various T20 leagues around the world these days, I haven’t seen KP play in years; therefore as far as I’m concerned he retired from all meaningful cricket some time ago.
Anyway, Pietersen’s official retirement provides a good opportunity to look back on his career with fondness. It’s human nature to block out the bad and only remember the good as time passes, so I’m hopeful that even Kevin’s fiercest critics can look back on his superb career without bitterness.
KP was, quite simply, one of England’s best ever batsmen. The fact he upset a few characters along the way seems almost irrelevant when one remembers his 8181 test runs, his 4440 runs in ODIs, plus his man of the tournament performances when England won the T20 World Cup in 2010. Some might portray him as Kevin the Teenager, but I’ll always remember him as something of a genius. And as we all know well, true genius is often flawed.
What I find extraordinary about KP is that his international statistics were actually somewhat disappointing in retrospect. He could have achieved even more. Although he finished with a test average of 47 in test cricket, at one point his average was well over 50. It’s such a shame that his form fell away somewhat in his last few years as a test cricketer – a combination of serious injuries, plus an inexplicable penchant for getting out to ‘left arm filth’ I suppose. Tensions within the dressing room must have proved a distraction too.
I often wonder if KP would’ve rediscovered his best form had his international career not been sawn off by the hapless Paul Downton. We’ve discussed this issue many times on the blog before – so there’s no need reiterate my belief that Pietersen was made a scapegoat for the calamitous Ashes whitewash of 2013/14 – but it’s possible KP could’ve scored another two or three thousand test runs had his test career run its natural course. Personally I doubt this, as his eye was always better than his technique, but it’s possible. Players who rely on their eye more than anything else don’t necessarily decline in their mid-30s.
So where does KP rank in the pantheon of England greats? At one time I thought he might become England’s best batsman since Ken Barrington. He seemed unstoppable in his fist few years in test cricket. What’s more, he seemed to save his very best for the best opposition and the very biggest occasions. I’ll never forget his maiden ODI hundred in South Africa when he first played for England. The crowd were incredibly hostile and turned their backs on him as he walked out to bat. His response was to flay the Proteas attack to all parts. And who can forget his test debut? Glenn McGrath tore our top order to shreds, but KP looked completely unperturbed and blazed a carefree half-century.
Unfortunately, however, I sense that KP somewhat lost his mojo after his early years. Yes he was still very good, but I sensed that he lost his swagger a bit – the type that Viv Richards always had. Whereas he often seemed invincible in the early years, the more mature Pietersen was definitely human. The statistics back this assertion up to some extent, although his double hundred on a featherbed at Adelaide in 2010 massaged his average a bit.
Although Pietersen was still capable of turning it on later in his England career – his performance at Mumbai in 2012, plus his superhuman efforts in Sri Lanka later on, were simply amazing – I never had the same confidence in him that I once had. That signature ton at Headingley against South Africa, which remains one of the best innings I’ve ever seen, was something of an aberration late in his career. “Sometimes it’s hard being me” he whimpered at the subsequent press conference. Not half as hard as it was for Dale Steyn and the rest of the Proteas’ attack that day.
Consequently, because KP’s brilliance became increasingly ephemeral as his test career progressed, it’s hard to argue with the old argument that KP was a “player of great innings rather than a great batsman”. However, I’d like to add the all important caveat that he was always, always, a brilliant player to watch. It was rarely dull when Pietersen was at the crease.
Whilst other batsmen used to pussyfoot around Murali, KP used to switch-hit him for six. Whereas other batsmen would play out a session if England were in a dominant position, KP would get bored and try to rub the opposition’s nose in it. Yes he used to look like a plonker when his methodology backfired, but his critics forget that he’d usually scored a lot of runs before he randomly held out in the deep.
Of course, there were the off-field controversies too. I guess we shouldn’t ignore them completely. However, I always sensed that Pietersen’s heart was usually in the right place – even though his diplomacy was usually inept. When Peter Moores was sacked the first time round, I thought that KP was completely in the right. Moores had lost the confidence of too many senior players (including Andrew Strauss) and his position was therefore untenable. The ECB just didn’t like it when the captain put them in an awkward position.
When it came to the infamous text message scandal, once again I found myself feeling sympathy for Pietersen. Yes it was completely wrong for him to message the South Africans during a test match – not to mention incredibly naive – but I probably would’ve had a problem playing for Strauss myself during that period of time. I always disliked our current Director’s cliches, management speak, and rather joyless modus operandi. If I’d had good mates in the opposition ranks I might well have texted them too. Cricket isn’t a war after all. International cricket is a serious game, but it’s still a game nonetheless. It seemed pretty obvious at the time that KP wasn’t enjoying life in the England dressing room.
When it came to The Ashes debacle that finished KP’s international career, I doubt we’ll ever know exactly what happened. I really hope that Alastair Cook spills the beans one day – I suspect he was just following ECB orders – but at the heart of the affair lay Pietersen’s complete refusal to follow methods that simply weren’t working. Once again his lack of diplomacy seems to have been his downfall, but I can hardly blame the bloke for standing up to Andy Flower when the head coach’s methods were so obviously failing. I understand that players need to rally behind their captain, and keep their mouth closed sometimes, but I find it difficult to condemn him too strongly for expressing views that most supporters agreed with.
The main stain on Pietersen’s career, however, probably came after England career finished. I’m referring, of course, to his autobiography. Although I found the book entertaining and fascinating to read, the bitterness and anger was clear to see; therefore I don’t think it was his proudest moment. Yes Kev, we know you didn’t like Andy Flower and Matt Prior, but was there really a need to skewer them so viciously? Prior was one of the players who’d extended an olive branch to KP after textgate, so it seemed astonishingly harsh to belittle him as ‘the big cheese’ (hilarious as it was to read).
It’s easy to forget, however, that aside from his big mouth KP was the consummate professional. As things went south rapidly on that infamous Ashes tour, the young players like Root and Stokes (plus the tail-end batsmen) spoke warmly about Pietersen’s efforts to mentor them, and how he spent extra hours with them in the nets. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why so many former teammates sent their best wishes to him on Twitter at the weekend, including Michael Vaughan, Steve Harmison, Simon Jones, and Andrew Flintoff … even thought the media used to pretend that KP and Freddie hated each other!
I’d be interested to hear everyone’s memories of Pietersen. Personally I’ll always think of Kevin as an entertainer more than anything else – one who flirted with genius. “That’s the way I play” he used to say after gifting his wicket to the opposition at the worst possible time. It wasn’t exactly reassuring to anxious and neurotic England supporters like myself. I lost count of the number of times he made me swear at the television. But on the other hand, I can’t think of any England player that’s made me go ‘wow’ more than Pietersen.
There’s no doubt that KP was unique – a complete one off in terms of personality, temperament, and batsmanship. He was uniquely frustrating but also uniquely talented. But above all he was uniquely entertaining. And he made life as a cricket blogger so much richer. After all, when KP was around, there was always plenty to write about.