We need to talk about Kevin

George Dobell’s interesting Cricinfo article on Kevin Pietersen this week got me thinking a bit about our South African friend (let’s not deny it – for all the England tattoos and overtly patriotic statements, KP’s definitely more Bloemfontein than Bloomsbury). We’ve grown pretty used to Kev – he’s been a fixture in the middle order, although for some reason rarely at number 3, since the Ashes in 2005. We take him for granted, but this familiarity seems to mean that we let a lot go as far as he’s concerned. KP is quite different from many of the England players who pass through the Test team, most of whom are so unmemorable that you’ve probably forgotten they ever put on a navy blue cap (think such cricketing titans as James Ormond, Usman Afzaal or Warren Hegg). For better or for worse, Pietersen is unforgettable.

Take an example – anyone remember the ‘skunk’? That was an affront to common decency. He has, at least, opted for more sensible hairstyles since, perhaps because he realised that as he’s almost always wearing a helmet or a cap, silly hair highlights are fairly unnoticeable, which defeats the object, really.

Then there’s the ‘flamingo’ (I sense an animal theme emerging here). A wristy flick through midwicket, performed on one leg, and resembling the stance of the well-balanced wading bird. A brilliant shot, no one is denying, but it sums KP up perfectly – unnecessarily ostentatious; over the top. Look at Jonathan Trott, a batting machine whose hardwired memory bank does not contain the word ‘ostentatious’ or the phrase ‘over the top’ – the same wristy flick, the same perfect timing, the same result but definitely played bipedally. Only one of these two men could have invented the switch-hit.

From a cricketing perspective, I have no problem with either the skunk or the flamingo. Kev could have four-foot long pigtails and a handlebar moustache for all I care, so long as he’s scoring plenty. He can play the flamingo until the cows come home if it gets him runs and rarely gets him out. He can even occasionally unleash the switch-hit when the situation demands it (although probably best not to at Lord’s – we wouldn’t want to give too many members heart attacks).

In fact, all would be hunky-dory with Pietersen if the quirks were just superficial. ‘Yes he’s a bit unorthodox, but it works for him and it’s great to watch’, says your prototypical fan in the queue for the bar, let’s call him Doug. But the trouble is, Doug, his swagger is not confined to luminous hairdos and one-legged strokeplay. It’s burrowed into his mind, and permeates his entire game. Allow me to elaborate.

First is shot-selection, most easily spotted when he’s either not scored many or is closing in on a landmark. If there’s any theme running through this post so far, it’s that Pietersen feels the need to be noticed, all the time; to be at the forefront of everybody’s minds. What better way to be noticed than going to a hundred with a six, or playing an outrageous pull shot to get off the mark? The trouble is KP is neither God nor Bradman, and like the rest of us mere mortals, he can’t play a great shot off any ball. Additionally, bowlers are not mere automata, they have brains too, and they know how to play on Pietersen’s weaknesses, whether mental or technical.

His dismissal by Umar Gul in the First Test was boneheaded, not because it was too good a bouncer to hook, though it was a good ball, but because it was such an obvious trap. Most batsmen would have thought ‘Aha! The old short ball trap. The rotter! Better leave it alone until I’m seeing it a bit better’. Pietersen, however, either thought nothing at all, or else ‘Aha! The old short ball trap. Imagine how good it’ll look to see it whistling through midwicket / flying over the fielder’s head.’ This inability to fully weigh up the glory of a particular shot against its context in an innings or its potential hazards has long been his downfall.

‘Ah’, says Doug, tucking into another pork pie and washing it down with his fourth pint, ‘but that’s just the way he plays. You take the rough with the smooth.’

No.

No, no, no, no, no, Doug. You don’t. Maybe as a brash youth in your first few Test matches you do, but not now. Not after nearly seven years of Test cricket. You bloody well learn to rein yourself in a bit. You’re 31 and your skunk-haired days are long behind you. Now grow up.

My second gripe is the way he bats on nought. Here’s a stat for you: 100% of batsmen start their innings on 0. Amazing isn’t it? So why, only when Pietersen walks in, do the hapless non-striker’s knees start to knock together? Why does he (the non-striker) get down on his blocks, awaiting starter’s orders, before running like he’s got an angry flamingo / skunk on his tail until he reaches the relative safety of the keeper’s end?

‘Ah’ says Doug, now on to a sausage roll, ‘everyone’s nervous on nought. KP just feels he needs to get off the mark as quickly as possible to get it out of his system.’

You’re only 50% right there, Doug. You’re quite right to say we’re all nervous on nought. Anyone who says they’re not is either a liar or Chris Martin, for whom the point of being nervous has long since departed. But the rest of us accept that it may take us a few balls to get going, and we should probably wait for the right opportunity rather than playing tip-and-run. Pietersen should take heed of this and learn that while getting out for a blob is mildly ignominious, it’s really not that much worse than getting out for 1. Being suicidally run out for a duck because of your desperation not to score a duck, on the other hand, is the sort of bizarr-o logic loop which ought to lead to careful psychiatric evaluation and possible removal from society for your own and everyone else’s good.

I could go on, but I won’t, if only for my own sanity. Of the other Pietersen oddities, the mental block against left-arm spin is well-documented and the inexplicable and irresistible urge to turn a perfectly good dot ball into four overthrows is too idiotic to get worked up about.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about Pietersen and certainly part of me does. His record is irrefutable, some of his shots are breathtaking and his confidence can be a force for good for the whole team. The trouble is, when he’s hopelessly out of form, as now, confidence becomes over-confidence and can verge on delirium, and it seems that when this happens, we are compelled to remember all the bad bits about him, rather than the good bits. There almost seems to be an air of surprise when we glance at the stats and find he’s averaging nearly 50 in 80 Tests, as though someone who plays the way he does really shouldn’t be allowed to.

I think, therefore, my feelings about KP are part admiration and part frustration. The calls for him to exercise more discipline in his game have been around as long as he has, and yet they haven’t gone away, because neither have the horrible glitches. He hasn’t learnt. I concede the rash strokes are gradually getting fewer, but it’ll take until he’s about 50 to lose them altogether at this rate, and there’s definitely already a sense of ‘what could have been’ with his career. Maybe he’ll buck his ideas up in the next few years, but if he’s not careful he could well become another one who had the potential, but never quite fulfilled it.

Sounds familiar. Maybe he really is English, after all…

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4 Comments

  1. Charlie Hall

     /  January 31, 2012

    It’s nice to read an article that isn’t bashing the england team, a trait that is rife among many cricketer bloggers or journalists as soon as they slip up. It wasn’t long ago that Pietersen scored a double hundred, but that seems too easy to forget when things dont go his way. His peculiarities and his hot and cold form is something that we will have to get used to, if we aren’t already. The calls for him to be replaced or any other batsman in the England team are unfair and just an excuse for column inches. The reason that England have been so successful over the last 3 years is because if their consistency in selection and that should remain the case.

    Reply
  2. Absolutely – I’m not suggesting for a moment that he should be dropped, but if we put our faith in someone like Pietersen to perform in the long term and overlook a few poor Tests, we should expect him to repay that faith by working hard to fix or remove some of the more glaring faults in his game. The frustration is that the criticisms of him are the same year after year, and he doesn’t seem to be taking much notice.

    Reply
  3. Theo K. Cokey

     /  January 31, 2012

    This is a great article. But don’t you think you’re in danger of falling into the same trap of many journalists of blaming his poor form on a defect in character, rather than just being in poor form per se? When Strauss or Bell are in poor form it is put down to lack of time in the middle, the weather, no warm-up games etc. When Pietersen fucks up it’s because he’s a swaggering prima donna who can’t play proper cricket shots. Your article is not as stark as this but there seems to be an element of character bashing, although maybe justifiably so.

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  4. Thanks for your comment, ‘Theo’. I think the point is this has nothing to do with form. It’s the way he plays all the time – it’s just it’s brought into starker focus by his poor form. Even when he’s in great form, he has a tendency to play in the same foolhardy way (or just high risk / high reward, depending on your point of view), but we overlook it because he’s usually able to get away with it. I think we should expect more responsibility from someone we build our middle order around. He could get rid a lot of the stupid play and still be just as effective a player. When he is out of nick, I reckon he could learn a lot from someone like Cook who really strips down his technique and restricts himself to a couple of shots he knows he can play.

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