So, it appears that the axe is finally going to be swung at Kevin Pietersen, bringing to an end one of history’s most controversial Test careers.
Whatever the statements that come out of the England camp may say in black and white, it’s clear from reading between the lines that Alastair Cook and Andy Flower feel that KP and his disruptive influence have no future in their new set-up. And, like it or not, the Flower-Cook partnership appears to have the backing of the new management administration in which Paul Downton and James Whitaker will play key roles.
Let’s not put ourselves in the shoes of those actually making the decision, though – let’s look at it from a more (pseudo) philosophical perspective.
You’re going to have to decide if you want to end the international career of one of the most exciting batsmen England (ahem?) has ever produced.
Your opinion on whether Kevin Pietersen should be axed after this – from an England point of view – most disastrous of Ashes series will reveal a lot about how you view the game and the manner in which it should be played.
Do you want to see cricket played by good, reliable, steady and consistent accumulators of runs that get their heads down and just play? Or do we want the drama that FIGJAM is capable of creating?
If we were talking about a bloke averaging in the 30s with just a thousand or so Test runs under his belt, this would be a no-brainer. Pietersen gave his wicket away time and time again in situations during this series when England needed him to knuckle down and play a responsible innings; not go trying to boost his planet-like ego by looking to smash bowlers into the stands and mishitting to fielders like a plank instead.
We’re not talking about an average cricketer, though, are we? We’re not even talking about a very good cricketer: we’re talking about a very special cricketer indeed.
If KP never plays a Test match again, he would have played 104 Test matches and in 181 innings have scored 8181 at an average of 47.28, with 23 hundreds and 35 half-centuries.
Stats don’t tell the full story – they never do – but it’s also the manner in which he has scored his runs, at a ridiculous strike rate of 61.72 over an entire career. And in that career, he has absolutely taken apart the world’s current best bowlers, such as the South Africans during his incredible knock at Headingley in the summer of 2012; and, early in his Test career, some of the best bowlers of all time in the likes of Warne, McGrath and Muralitharan.
Cricket is a game of shade and light, where opinions can differ on thebasis of style, technique or perceived levels of application, which is why there are many purists among us that claim he throws the bat too much; and he provided plenty of evidence throughout this cataclysmic Ashes series to support that view. They want steady batsmen with solid techniques and cool heads.
Is that what you really want, though? I mean, really? I’ve laughed heartily at anecdotes about proper digging in and watchful batting from way back, my personal favourite being the following from journalist Martin Johnson, recalling his granddad watching the great Ken Barrington bat at a Test match at Old Trafford in the 60s:
“Ee, lad, it were grand. When I fell asleep, Barrington were 4 not out. When I awoke two hour later, ‘e were still 4 not out”
Brilliant stuff. Warms the cockles.
But cricket was a different game then, with a very different audience. Cricket didn’t need to justify its existence in those days. And, yet, even though the rate at which Barrington stockpiled his runs was rarely questioned – chiefly because he was often mounting rearguard efforts to single-handedly save or even win matches – followers of the game back then still liked to see his doughty batsmanship contrasted with that of, shall we say, more dashing players. Furthermore, cricket was, as our Geoffrey loves to point out, played on uncovered pitches back then, so you had no choice but to rein in those attacking instincts unless you were absolutely brilliant.
Pietersen would not have fared well on uncovered pitches, it’s true, but you can only beat the opposition in front of you in the conditions you’re given.
Cricket has had to reinvent itself in the past 20 years to even keep within a million miles of high octane Premiership football or even the revitalised rugby codes in England. New – and even some elements of the established – audiences want to be entertained by Test cricket, which means batsmen smashing 4s and 6s: Pietersen has smashed 81 6s in his career and 975 4s.
To put that into context, Bradman struck six 6s in his career and the great West Indian dasher Everton Weekes just one or two. I wouldn’t dream of comparing KP with The Don, nor even the best of the vaunted ‘Three Ws’, but KP is like them in as much as he is worth the entrance fee alone to some people. He’s electric, and easily the most exciting batsmen to emerge since Lara’s retirement.
KP is box office. Test cricket – and English Test cricket in particular – is in debt to Pietersen on that very basis.
Hark back to the 90s, and you will recall the tearing of hair and beating of breasts that went on as followers of the game and the media split into ‘for or against Ramprakash and Hick’ or even ‘Ramprakash vs Hick’ camps as we decried the state of the English game and sought out for a gifted maverick to give us something to shout about.
Ramprakash and Hick. Hick and Ramprakash. They – and I raise this as someone that vigorously and somewhat ridiculously supported Ramps’s case for fair and consistent selection at the time – were the most gifted batsmen we had at our disposal? Seriously? Seriously?!? Fine county players though they were – and certainly both should have been given better runs in the Test side, considering the dearth of English batting talent at the time – I’m afraid neither were anywhere near as talented as KP, nor had his incredible self-belief.
The point is that KP has given us something to talk about in every Test match he’s played in during an eight-year Test career, and it has never been that he has not been good enough at Test level.
Village left-arm spin? Yeah, awful against it; but not because he’s not good enough to play it – it’s just that it seems to be kryptonite to him and he appears to want to obliterate its very existence whenever he encounters it, leading to his own rather silly downfall. Stupid hair, yes. Appalling attitude? Sometimes, supposedly. Off-field controversy? Loads of it – some of it shocking, with the Strauss debacle especially shameful. Stupid shots? And then some.
But a bowler being too good for KP? Never. Never ever. Not Glenn McGrath, not Shane Warne, not Dale Steyn, not Brett Lee, not Muttiah Muralitharan, not Zaheer Khan, not Morne Morkel, not Saeed Ajmal, not Kemar Roach, not Anil Kumble, not Vernon Philander; and not Mitchell Johnson, whom I felt KP played as well as any English batsman in this series.
Where KP stands among the greats of the game is another question – and his status as a ‘great cricketer, which is something he easily had within his grasp at one time, is now very much in doubt – but none of those wonderful bowlers were too good for KP.
This is how good Kevin Pietersen is and has been. And at 34, he’s far from finished, particularly when you consider that there is no-one anywhere near good enough to replace him at number four in England’s batting line-up. And until there is, his Test career must go on, both for the success of the team and for the media profile of the game.
Love him or hate him, we will miss KP when he’s gone.