Monday 9 April 2012

Time to cut Pietersen some slack...

It’s taken five Tests, a great deal of soul searching, unceasing running repairs to increasingly damaged reputations and a dose or two of severe humiliation along the way but England have succeeded in winning a Test match in Asia for the first time this winter, seizing their final opportunity to do so in a performance reminiscent of the rise to the summit of world cricket that garnered such widespread acclaim.

Numerous reports and blogs have already surfaced covering the issue of whether England have actually learnt to play cricket in the sub-continent - the conclusion to which with the bat at least is still very much contentious – so I’ll steer clear of the particular debate and instead focus upon the indubitable protagonist of England’s eight wicket win in Colombo, a resplendent Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen - Imperious in Colombo
Pietersen, lest we forget, arrived in Colombo having scored a paltry 100 runs at a rather unbecoming average of 12.50 across England’s overseas winter tours, and under more pressure than any of his colleagues with the sole exception of his captain Andrew Strauss, in the eyes of many observers. Such a suggestion may superficially appear a little perplexing, given that Pietersen had spent the best part of 2011 laying waste to the bowling attacks of Australia, Sri Lanka and India when amassing 821 runs at a shade over 82, but swift and unremitting criticism has proved a perpetual companion of the South African born batsman at the first hint of failure throughout his England tenure.

It is an unfortunate facet of Pietersen’s England career, the source of which is difficult to pinpoint. Pietersen possesses many a characteristic that is at odds to those associated with the quintessential English cricketer. Unequivocal self-belief, little fear of failure and a demeanour suggestive of being the very best at what he does are just some of those, and when coupled with a willow wielding style that is conspicuous by its absence from the MCC coaching manual it is plain to see why more than just a handful of English traditionalists have failed to acquire the Pietersen taste.  

Perhaps it is merely the South African name. We live in one of the most diverse multi-cultural societies in the world here in Great Britain, interacting with fellow human beings of differing race, religion and background on a daily basis, all of whom are widely embraced as British citizens. An acquiescent isle we may be, but that fails to avert the reservations of many over the number of players of South African origin bolstering the English ranks.

It is true that Pietersen is not alone within the current England setup. Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior are all affiliated with other cricketing nations in conjunction with the three lions under whose banner they proudly ply their trade, yet scarcely a fraction of the vitriol aimed at Kevin Pietersen upon losing his wicket is afforded to those players. That suppresses the South African argument, then.

In reality, a combination of the above likely contributes to the amplified scrutiny Pietersen experiences at the first sight of a flaw. Some may indeed resent the South African association, whilst others undoubtedly dislike the outward displays of bravado. Hitched up sleeves presenting Pietersen’s powerful, tattooed limbs and a propensity for adding an element of extravagance to even the most rudimentary of strokes are all intended as a demonstration of purpose to a fielding side; this is Kevin Pietersen’s stage, not theirs. There will never be a "good morning, my name's Pietersen” in the manner of a gentlemanly Colin Cowdrey. It hasn’t always sat well with the older generation unused to such pageantry and bluster; plenty are quick to label Pietersen a ‘show pony’ only interested in limited overs cricket, yet it is widely acknowledged that nobody puts in more hours of practice.

Preceding his exhibition of imperious magnificence in Colombo an undercurrent that Pietersen was perhaps operating on borrowed time had existed. Having endured a miserable winter one wouldn’t have had to search too far afield to find an observer firm in this belief, despite the heroics of 2011. An impressive Test record boasting 6,654 runs at an average hovering a shade below the Holy Grail of 50 with 20 centuries – just three away from becoming the most of any Englishman – is seemingly superfluous to many Pietersen critics.

That very issue alone would suggest, at least, that the volatile reaction to Pietersen in almost any innings in which he fails to contribute may just be a direct consequence of his lavish talent. Few batsmen in world cricket are as naturally gifted, though many return similar statistics. Teammates Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott provide two immediate examples, neither of whom can claim to possess comparable ability to Pietersen yet average very much the same per innings.

With Kevin Pietersen there remains an underlying feeling that there is so much more. Such a comment may appear outlandish given his excellent track record, but it serves to highlight the enormous talent that Pietersen possesses. On numerous occasions there has been a sense that Pietersen has ‘thrown his wicket away’, perhaps trying to dominate a particular bowler in yet another show of bravado and paying a heavy price. Without those Pietersen would arguably already be England’s leading Test century maker with an average comfortably north of 50.

There is little doubt that Pietersen is capable of becoming an all-time great of both English and world cricket, such is his extraordinary talent. To silence his staunchest critics, though, the soft dismissals would need to stop. But would it be the same Pietersen without the risk? Anything can happen at any moment in a Pietersen innings; suicidal run outs, bizarre dismissals and an outrageous array of strokes are always on the agenda, making Pietersen conceivably the most watchable batsman in world cricket.

The choice is Pietersen’s alone. Greatness is within his reach but cricket may become a duller place should he attempt to grasp it. For now though his place as England’s number four should not be doubted. Here we have one of the most successful and entertaining batsmen to don the three lions in many a year, an astonishing talent likely to have smashed all English Test batting records by the time the curtain falls on an illustrious career.  His tendency for combining the sublime with the ridiculous will likely continue to frustrate, but innings such as those in Colombo are a timely reminder that Pietersen remains a match winner for England, and a batsman that is deserving of considerably more slack than he is currently afforded.  

Kevin Pietersen is a genius. A flawed genius, yes, but a genius nonetheless that will continue to win Test matches for England. Enjoy him whilst he is here.


  1. You're spot on that Pietersen's South African heritage shouldn't come into it. It's not his fault that English cricket is overly reliant upon players whose formative cricket has come in South Africa - it's a symptom of a gaping flaw in English player development. It's not right that so many players who've learned their cricket in South Africa play for England, but neither does that mean that Pietersen, or Trott, or Dernbach, or Kieswetter are anything other than English.

    And in many senses, you undersell KP. He's already an all-time great. Eyebrows were raised when Christopher Martin-Jenkins named him 60th in his Top 100 Cricketers of All Time a couple of years ago, but once the vertigo of immediacy has warn off, it will come to look about correct. At his pomp, he is amongst the most irresistible of batsmen in the game's history - far superior to Sehwag, if a little short of Viv Richards. He is more destructive, more consistently, for longer than the legendary Gilbert Jessop; more imperious than Ted Dexter; (whisper it) a far better batsman than Botham ever was. The only legitimate rival for his number 5 spot in the All Time England team is Denis Compton, unless, like me, you insist on the captaincy of Jardine.

    But hold on - isn't this the guy whose dropping I so loudly called for? Yes, and I stand by it. His fault is solitary, and you don't really address it: he doesn't take long form cricket seriously. Now and again, in an act of sheer disingenuity, he claims Test cricket is the pinnacle for him, but actions speak louder than words. He plays no long-form cricket other than Tests. When he's in form, as he was last summer, he can rely on his prodigious talent and the carry-over form from all cricket to bear him along, but when the going gets tough, as this winter, the problem is revealed.

    Test cricket makes demands of players that One day and T20 simply do not. It demands long innings, ugly runs, self-denial. Pietersen can do all of these things, no matter what the critics say, but they do not come naturally. If he plays no long form other than Tests, the result is that he uses Tests to play himself into form. That, for me, is unacceptable. The story of Colombo was not that Pietersen played a remarkable innings, an innings beyond the scope of any other player on either side, an innings which won a Test match, but that it took him four Tests to get into that form, and England lost all of them. Now he has gone to the IPL. He will still have time to play a Championship match for Surrey before the first Test, but I doubt he will.

    That's why I think he should be dropped - it's not his talent, which is indisputable, nor his accent, which is irrelevant. It's his disrespect for England Test matches, which I think is born of hubris, not malice, which a brief spell out of the side would rapidly dispel.

  2. We've had plenty a talk on this subject in the past, so whilst you are well aware that I disagree with your final paragraph I'll address your other (excellent) points in turn.

    I personally think that Pietersen is on the cusp of being an all-time great worldwide, whereas I believe he is already an English all-time great (many will argue otherwise, no doubt, saying that he wouldn't even make it in to an all-time England XI). In terms of sheer talent he is already there. He has the defining innings which is the benchmark that I judge all players by, the statistics (which as I say could even have been better) and the rare ability to both create and play shots barely seen before on a cricket field. However, I only say on the cusp because I believe there is more to come. The real greats perform with unerring consistency, and that is something that Pietersen will also qualify for if he keeps returning similar statistics until the end of his career.

    Now, on to your key point. Pietersen and first class cricket. I'd challenge your suggestion that he doesn't take the long form seriously, as he undoubtedly grafts incredibly hard to right any wrongs. You are right in that Pietersen doesn't play enough first class cricket outside of Test matches, though. For me it is the same (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent) for all of England's batsmen. I don't really see any excuse for it, either. Bowlers need rest, granted, but can the same be said of batsmen? In my view each of the England top 7 should be playing at every opportunity up until the Windies series now, and then again up until the South Africa series. Swing and seam of the kind experienced in England is not easy to just rock up and play against, particularly when it is being delivered courtesy of Messrs Steyn, Philander and Morkel.

    It is the one downfall of the otherwise fantastic central contract system. Our bowlers thrive because of it, yet our batsmen often strive.

  3. Lads, though I don't live in your cold little corner of the world (as much as I love it), don't all England's test cricketers regularly miss playing first class cricket even when the opportunity presents itself? Given the amount of international cricket they play, is it any wonder? To the IPL: the razzmatazz suits KP - he thrives on that sort of thing whereas he would likely find it very hard to get up for a county fixture in temperatures in the teens. I don't think that is necessarily the right attitude but he does things his way - it's one of the flaws of his genius.

    The vitriol he faces isn't unique to England - there are cricketers the world over that have it served up even when they are successful. I'm not a Dernbach fan but he could be a world beater and he's still have abuse hurled at him. Likewise with Michael Clarke, Brendon McCullum and Jesse Ryder. I understand the disappointment and even criticism when it has context, but the vitriol is out of line. Is it media or fans that lead the charge? 'Fans' if they could be called that. Generally the 'cricketing media' stay out of it. Tattoos, bling, strutting, bullshit comments - I couldn't care less if they put numbers on the board - they're employed to play cricket, not be role models.

    Nice piece.

  4. They do indeed, and it is rather frustrating. As I said above the bowlers I can kind of understand after a tough tour, but batsmen need to be playing during this limited County Championship window of opportunity prior to two big Test series this summer.

    It seems that the majority will play just one first class match beforehand, which is far from adequate.

    You are essentially right, though, in that some characters do just seem to attract such criticism. Your final statement sums it up perfectly - performing for their country is what ultimately matters. Pietersen has done so since 2005 on a very consistent basis (a bad tour here and there, but who doesn't have those?). Here's hoping he continues to silence them in the best possible way - by performing precisely as he did in Colombo.

    Thanks for the input, fellas, appreciated as always.

  5. Not sure I'd call KP an All Time Great yet but he is thereabouts. I have a simple theory for greatness that noe must prove himself in all conditions. KP has a natural talent that is bettered by only Sachin Tendulkar and matched by Virender Sehwag among those still playing international cricket. For some reason whenever batting on Asian pitches he has seemed to go in a shell against spinners. Thats just not KP. The only way KP will succeed is if he plays his natural game which is what he did in Colombo and hardly a surprise that the opposition had no answers. Hopefully this hundred will him get over the mental block and he will bat in India the way he did in Colombo and not how he did in Dubai,Abu Dhabi and Galle.

  6. KP has shown that he can bat in the sub-continent previously, too. He has scored centuries in both Pakistan and India, has he not? (I haven't checked that, so may be mistaken). He has now added Sri Lanka to that list, and looked mighty impressive in doing so, so I'd say it is more a case of consistency in those conditions now. Hopefully the UAE was just a blip, as it was for all of England's batsmen. We shall find out in India at the back end of the year.

  7. Thats my point. He has the ability and has done it before. Needs to do it consistently to be called an all time great though.

  8. Good morning Mr Bloxham,
    Interesting read. I'd like to suggest that while KP's talent is unquestionable, he seems to have lacked the metal to dig in when the openers have failed, at least in recent times. This comes into sharp focus when the safety net of the 6th specialist batsman has been removed from the team sheet.
    As much as KP's 1st innings knock was spectacular and bought England and extra session, I think no little credit on this occasion is due to the openers who put in the hard graft to enable that performance. It’s a team game after all, with each member ideally excelling in his role within the team. The thing about KP is that not many others can excel in the role he did. This singles him out as a contender within the debate of greatness.
    However, if the team are 2 down for very little runs, I don't think I'm alone in being surprised if he manages to recover the situation. This, to me, is his Achilles heel in the context of greatness (although I'm sure an expert statistician such as yourself Mr Bloxham will be able to correct my opinion here).
    Without wanting to sound like Geoffrey, I think Test cricket is mostly about assessing situations and using your loaf to adapt to the situation.
    There is also the significant point about his apparent vulnerability to slow left armers.
    Having said all that, I am a big fan and think he is compulsive viewing and we will miss him when he's no longer around.
    That’s my two penneth, for what it’s worth.
    Owen Jones

  9. Owen, thanks mate.

    I understand where you are coming in terms of never being quite sure whether KP will manage to recover a situation. After all, his style isn't best suited to digging in (though he is well capable of doing so). However, there have been a fair few innings in the past where he has done so (Australia 05 158, Sri Lanka 07? 142 being two examples).

    You're right in essence though in that the platform laid by the top 3 allowed KP to play as he did in that first innings at Colombo. It was the first time all winter that he had arrived at the crease in such a situation, and it didn't half tell in the freedom that he was able to play with from right from the beginning.

    The left armers point is a valid one, yet I'm also baffled by that as he plays them with consumate ease at times. Perhaps he feels (or felt) that they were cannon fodder and thus got out a few times by being overly aggressive. The issue was then raised in the media and though KP says it hasn't become a mental thing I think it actually did for a while. I wouldn't say that he is clueless against them, his assault on Herath at Colombo being a prime example, but he has certainly had his problems.

    Your point about KP being one of very few people in the history of the game that could play that innings on such a slow pitch (one where nobody else that scored in double figures had a strike rate in excess of 50, yet KP's was almost 100) does indeed highlight greatness in itself. For me, a solid benchmark of greatness has always been defining innings. KP has plenty of these, Colombo was just another to add to a long list, which makes me think he is nearly there. He certainly will be if he continues for another few years at his current rate.