<i>Why do you build me up buttercup, baby
just to let me down and mess me around. ----Westlife</i>
These lines from Westlife best describe the Kevin Pietersen phenomenon in world cricket today. It’s not the form which is keeping KP in news off late, but it is his off field remarks and actions which are being scrutinized and debated all across UK and in the cricketing fraternity to an extent that it threatens English cricket’s, arguably, brightest talent ever. Though, some may argue in favour of Ian Botham for that eulogy.
It would be largesse to call English team mediocre without Kevin. But many believe that it is the talent of the man which has been largely responsible for all the mess that he finds himself in. After being stripped off captaincy, it was but natural to feel the pinch. If anything, it was not the commitment, or the lack of it, to English cricket which was responsible for his sacking as captain.
Since the time he debuted, British media loved to hate him and hated to love him. Compare that with the man’s unending love for cricket and England. The Natal born maverick slammed three centuries against South Africa, forcing every one to accept his new found nationality (he left South Africa due to the racial quota system there), that too in his debut year. But that was just the beginning.
What followed next was something which even the Balmy Army could not expect. After being called in for the Test side against the mighty Aussies in Ashes, KP slammed two back to back fifties, silencing critics who dubbed him as an ‘only ODI’ player.
A doubtful Geoffrey Boycott wrote in his column prior to the oval Test: “He (KP) wants to be the superstar, he wants the acclaim and the adulation, but he has not yet put in the performances to back up that attitude." Then came the Oval– and up front were Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Stuart Clarke. Lee and McGrath were firing bouncers, but KP stood firm even after nearly losing his head. Deliveries with over 95 mph were fired at him but the man remained undeterred and went on to score 158 runs, smacking 15 fours and a six. KP- The Maverick had arrived.
Later on, Boycott wrote in his BBC column; “I never saw Denis Compton bat, but people said he did outrageous things, while another player of that era, Len Hutton, was the technical perfectionist. But everybody I speak to tells me Compton had a sound basic technique and played a lot of orthodox cricket shots- Kevin Pietersen does the same.”
His tendency to play every ball, spin or fast, has often attracted critics’ attention but the man remains defiant. Be it a whip down the leg-side or a full blooded pull shot from a few yards down the track, one thing is common – confidence. His ‘no muck’ attitude to battings has attracted many legends of the game. The great Sir Vivian Richards says, “Batsmanship is all about scoring runs and going past fielders. You need to find gaps and play the ball where you want it to be played. Pietersen does that. He doesn't muck around and I really like that.”
But as it happens with all greats, form eluded him for 2007-08 series but the intention and attitude was intact. Pietersen came back stronger with back to back centuries at Napier and Trent Bridge. And the ultimate icing on the cake came at Lord’s against South Africa. Dubbed as traitor by Graeme Smith, KP smashed a scintillating 152 against Proteas as the two teams shared honours. "I'm patriotic about my country, and that's why I don't like Kevin Pietersen. The only reason that Kevin and I have never had a relationship is because he slated South Africa," Smith once remarked.
But, there is something in the English nature which does not love a person like KP. The man has attracted unwarranted criticism and no one probably knows why it is happening with him. He was unceremoniously and unjustly axed as the England captain after media leaked his differences with then coach Peter Moores. KP might have won the lion hearted battle between him and Warne, but the unorthodox lad had no idea of the googly which ECB had in store for him.
Many celebrated, columnist Peter Roebuck believed that KP failed to honour the English captaincy. But knowing Pietersen, one was sure that if ECB expected him to follow the act of his predecessors, then it was fooling itself. Who could have ever thought of hitting Muralitharan for a six with a shot which we now term as ‘switch-hit’. Pietersen wanted Shane Warne as coach and backed him, but ECB was reluctant and did not favour changes, stuck in its old English ways.
Pietersen has played some amazing knocks under Strauss’ captaincy in the West Indies tour, but by asking team management to allow him to travel back to England in order to see his wife perform (what – music, acting, cricket), he has again invited fresh criticism. Just when it was time for KP to show more restraint, his patience seemed to be running out. Great journeys are never without struggle and like a true champion, KP is bound to over come it.
By asking Strauss to lead the team, ECB has surely denied KP his rightful place. No dressing room can have healthy atmosphere if there is a feeling that justice was denied. KP’s life, as he himself says, is in a ‘mess’ and who is responsible is yet to be determined. Wisden rated him in his almanac, but just that is not what KP wanted. He dreamt of that position for too long, that recognition for which he left his country– but somehow finds himself out of favour.
But divine justice seems to have been working its way out as KP has a chance to prove his worth as captain of Bangalore Royal Challengers for the fresh season of IPL. As long as he performs and keeps scoring runs, anything else doesn’t matter. Watching cricketer KP is a joy and a rare treat, but how long that joy remains, only future can tell.