Every so often in sport, there comes a player who gets people talking far more than their peers. Whether it be through their brilliance on the field or the controversy off it, such players make the headlines and can be both a dream and a nightmare for their teammates and fans. It is a rare occurrence but when it happens, people take notice.
So, as Kevin Pietersen draws the curtains on his remarkable cricketing career, what will he be remembered as: One of England’s greatest batsmen or a character that refused to settle? The answer may seem obvious to some but to others it is up for debate. No other England player in recent memory, with the possible exception of Ian Botham, caused as much controversy as Pietersen.
Indeed, it was for such reasons that Pietersen’s England career was cut short after the Ashes debacle at the start of 2014. And the next year, in the build-up to the Ashes series in England, the door remained shut for Pietersen despite a potential opening from ECB chairman Colin Graves. “There is a massive trust issue between me and Kevin,” admitted Andrew Strauss, England’s director of cricket and Pietersen’s former captain, in May 2015. The real reason Pietersen was sacked in the first place remains unclear.
It wasn’t just that period which saw Pietersen hit the headlines for off the field reasons. In 2012 he was involved in the ‘textgate’ scandal in which Pietersen sent numerous texts to South Africa players, who were playing against England that summer, including one which called Strauss a ‘doos’ (Afrikaans swearword), which brought Pietersen’s England future into serious doubt.
Kevin Pietersen: The Divisive Genius
Then there was his disastrous captaincy reign in 2008-9 which included a falling out with head coach Peter Moores (who left his role as a result) and an increasingly unsettled feeling around the England camp, which showed in the first Test of 2009 against West Indies at Sabina Park, where the visitors collapsed to 51 all out.
In addition, at the start of his England career, Pietersen badly fell out with his teammates at Nottinghamshire and bravely kissed the England badge after reaching his first England century against South Africa, his country of birth, at Bloemfontein in 2004, a celebration which was met with anger from those in the crowd and beyond.
Controversy seemed to follow Pietersen everywhere he went and in the end, his egotistical nature, many of which compared to a maverick, was too much for the hierarchy in the ECB set up.
Yet, like most ‘mavericks’, the trouble surrounding Pietersen’s off-field controversies was made far less painful by his utter brilliance on the field. He was a batsman who not only had the ability to play brilliant innings but, in the process could change a match and, in some cases, a series. At his best, he was a swashbuckling, majestic attacking player capable of destroying any attack in the world. At his worst, he was frustrating and his shot selection made people scratch their heads. Either way, he was a player you had to have in your side.
Ironically, all the traits Pietersen was criticised for, the arrogance, the disrespect and the brashness, they were also all traits cricket fans loved in his batting. And for those who were put off by his ego, it would be hard to call yourself a cricket fan if you failed marvel at a Pietersen whip through midwicket or a powerful loft over extra cover. Pietersen’s ability to play shots others could not brought in crowds by the masses. He attracted attention.
There is a debate that will undoubtedly carry on for many years: Was Pietersen a great player or a player of great innings? Indeed, some of the knocks he played for England almost defied belief, none more so than his 158 at The Oval. Scoring so many runs at a critical stage against Australia would have been brilliant enough, yet it was the way Pietersen scored them. At 127-5, with the Ashes on the line, it would have been easy for Pietersen to go into his shell but, with the encouragement of his captain Michael Vaughan, played the way he knew best, smashing Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee all around the ground with talent that had rarely been seen before in English cricket.
With that knock came a reputation and in the years to come, Pietersen would continue to thrill and frustrate with his attacking style of play. Yet, as an England fan at the very least, Pietersen’s arrival at the crease was greeted with anticipation because you knew that, in the midst of his wild dismissals, brilliance was always around the corner.
It was no coincidence that arguably English cricket’s most successful era (2009-13) featured many of Pietersen’s finest performances. England’s only global one-day trophy, the World T20 win in the Caribbean in 2010, saw him win the player of the tournament as he powered England’s batting displays at number three.
Then we had the 2010-11 Ashes win in Australia. Sure, Alastair Cook’s mammoth 766 runs drew in all the credit and rightly so. He was the rock upon England build their foundations. Yet Pietersen’s 227 in the Second Test was a stunning statement of intent that England were going to have the upper hand in the series. He dominated the bowling with shots all around the Adelaide Oval. It was shades of Sir Vivian Richards. It was a masterful performance.
After leading England to number one in the world in Tests a year later with more dazzling displays, it was Pietersen’s on-field response to criticism about his ability to play spin bowling that further defied belief. First, he made 151 against Sri Lanka at Colombo in heat touching 40C on an increasingly turning pitch. What’s more, he did it at such speed and with such ease that reminded everyone of his remarkable talent. It was yet another match-winning innings that gave England a very credible 1-1 series draw.
Indeed, his 149 against South Africa at Headingley in the midst of the ‘textgate’ saga was another brilliant display, yet possibly his finest knock came in Mumbai later that year. Hammered in the first Test at Ahmedabad and with him making just 19 runs, Pietersen set about changing the course of the series with extraordinary audacity. Walking out to bat at 68-2, Pietersen played with supreme skill and courage for a man under such pressure. He smashed all bowlers and, in particular, Pragyan Ojha, England’s chief destroyer in the first Test, to all corners of the Wankhede Stadium on his way to 186. Once more, it was an innings that proved the catalyst towards England winning the Test and the series.
Sadly, the frequency of Pietersen’s match-winning knocks waned and, in what would be his last 10 Tests, he averaged a mere 34. Perhaps, by that point, he was a player in decline but there will always remain a case of ‘what if’ as the potential of several more brilliant performances for England were taken away from him.
In the end, things got nasty as Pietersen produced a book criticising certain players in the England dressing room and those above him in the ECB. It took a while but as soon as Pietersen realised his chances of playing for England were over, he settled for a few years of T20 globetrotting before heading off into the sunset.
Who knows if we will ever see a player like Kevin Pietersen again. Yet, what we do know is that English cricket owes him an awful lot of gratitude for the stunning displays and match-winning contributions to what was a very successful period. Whatever he did, Pietersen got people talking, and with that made him one of the most astonishing players to grace the modern era.