In Love and War: Assessing the complicated legacy of Kevin Pietersen

This week it was announced that Kevin Pietersen’s stint with Surrey in this summer’s T20 Blast will be his last appearance as a player on English soil.

17 years after he first played for Nottinghamshire and 13 years on from his England debut, the 36-year-old Pietersen will bid farewell to the game in the country with which he has such a complicated relationship. As he prepares for his curtain call, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on Pietersen’s complex legacy and examine his place in the history of English cricket.

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For three intoxicating months in the summer of 2005, cricket was a national obsession. As England and Australia staged their epic battle for the Ashes, cricket was cool and Pietersen a symbol of the game’s popular renaissance.

An exotic, swaggering presence, Pietersen arrived in the England side with a peroxide streak in his hair and a brazen refusal to be subjugated. His batting was combative and unorthodox; quite unlike anything English cricket fans had seen before. His 91* from 65 balls in a winning ODI chase at Bristol in June 2005 was a very public proclamation of the 25-year-old Pietersen’s genius. His Ashes-winning 158 at the Oval three months later confirmed his place in English cricketing history. He was bold and he was charismatic. He was a rock star in whites. He even dated Caprice.

Twelve years on, as Pietersen – now an itinerant T20 freelancer in the autumn of his career – prepares for a final English summer, the task of assessing his legacy is more difficult than might have been imagined when he first burst onto the scene. Back then it seemed obvious that Pietersen would become a mainstay of the England side for a generation, breaking every batting record imaginable in the process. Reality, however, has a habit of complicating narratives.

On paper, with 8,181 Test runs at 47.28 and 4,440 ODI runs at 40.73, Pietersen is one of the most prolific batsmen to have ever worn an England shirt. Able to perform at a consistently high level despite playing with an almost reckless abandon, Pietersen was and still remains a box-office entertainer with a skillset audacious in its breadth and quality. Team sport, however, is about more than pure performance, and it was English cricket’s demand for talent to adhere to a code of cultural uniformity that derailed Pietersen’s progress and, for a time, stained the England side’s reputation.

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As an outsider to English cricket both in terms of his South African upbringing and infallible self-confidence, Pietersen initially thrived on his reputation as a rebel. A maverick with bat in hand, Pietersen was unapologetically different and played his best cricket when freed from responsibility and given license to express himself without fear of failure.

The problems started when the ECB – simultaneously captivated and confused by Pietersen – attempted to institutionalise their premier batsman. Searching for a new captain following Michael Vaughan’s resignation in August 2008, the English cricket authorities turned to Pietersen in the hope that he could adapt to leadership and inspire through the vivacity of his performances. Rather than moulding him into a collectivist, however, the captaincy only served to put Pietersen on a collision course with the conservatism that is a defining feature of so many British institutions.

Impressed by Pietersen and yet suspicious of his individuality, the ECB had hoped that by making KP a company man they could more easily control him and encourage a greater degree of compliance. Instead, Pietersen kicked against authority at every turn, failing to submit to the wishes of the ECB and refusing to be lectured to by Peter Moores, England’s somewhat dogmatic head coach.

During his 13 games as captain, Pietersen’s own performances actually improved (he averaged 52.4 in Tests and 60 in ODIs during that period), but the team came to be defined by a toxic atmosphere behind the scenes. In a fractured dressing room rife with cliques and in-fighting, England were being led by a revolutionary at a time when they desperately needed a diplomat.

Five months after his appointment, having infuriated the inner sanctum of the England team and exposed the shy orthodoxy of the ECB, Pietersen resigned from his position and began a protracted fall from grace that tested the trade-off between talent and disruption to its limit. Moores was sacked the same day and English cricket was left in turmoil.

Apparently undeterred by the disruption, the following years saw Pietersen produce soaring peaks of form. England’s 2010 World T20 triumph and three consecutive Ashes triumphs from 2009 to 2013 were all remarkable successes with Pietersen a dominant feature. However, KP’s superb on-field contributions were continually undermined by lapses of judgement off it. Derogatory text messages about Andrew Strauss, a row over IPL availability and a particularly hostile autobiography saw the ECB lose patience with Pietersen and the brightest star in English cricket’s firmament was quickly cast as a dangerous agitator with little regard for anyone but himself.

By 2014, his costs outweighing his benefits in the eyes of the ECB, Pietersen was banished from the England team and forced into exile as a T20 specialist touring the world’s leading franchise tournaments. Having once stood at the pinnacle of international cricket, Pietersen had fallen victim to both his own personality and the ECB’s seeming inability to manage non-conformity. At the age of 34 Pietersen had been cast out of elite cricket to become a travelling salesman reduced to cameo appearances that afforded only fleeting glimpses of his prodigious talent.

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The fate of Pietersen’s international career holds a mirror up to the distrust of individualism that resides at the heart of British society. Whereas KP’s impudent showmanship would surely have been championed in Australia or his native South Africa, in England he was viewed as a divisive and capricious character unable to be assimilated into the collective. British institutions are usually happy to accommodate eccentricity to some extent, but when those quirks become interpreted as arrogance or needless self-indulgence lines are quickly drawn in the sand.

In hindsight, Pietersen’s legacy encompasses the past and the future of English cricket. On the one hand, he was the player who did more than any to modernise the England team, almost single-handedly transforming their approach with his aggressive batting across all formats of the game. On the other, Pietersen was an anti-authoritarian who failed to grasp the conservative nature of English cricket and, more significantly, the importance of cohesion to the success of a team unit. Loved and loathed in equal measure, Pietersen can be viewed as a player caught at the epicentre of a generational struggle for cricket’s soul. It’s starting to look like his side won.

Returning for one final T20 Blast in his now familiar role as a gun for hire, perhaps it’s time for the British public to lay aside any lingering resentment and simply celebrate Pietersen for all the joy he has brought to the game. He may be a difficult, volatile and complex figure, but he’s always been a genius. Of that there can be no doubt.

Image: Flickr

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