With modern professional sport being such a hatchet-faced, hard-edged and thoroughly bloody business, I imagine few, if any, members of the England cricket team have had time to read Lionel Shriver’s excellent 2003 novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. But if ever her publishers demand a sequel, there’ll be no shortage of potential authors in the England changing room.
Except of course, that their Kevin is of the Pietersen variety, and far from being fictional, he is very much alive and kicking. Brash, controversial and supremely gifted, South-African born Pietersen has been the dominant presence in England’s national game for over a decade. Yet at just 34 his England career is seemingly over, a casualty of the team’s recent dismal performance in Australia.
Now he has published his own account of his life and times, in a book titled (with typical self-confidence), simply KP; and while it may not match Shriver’s work for sales figures, it’s doing very nicely thank you.
Nobody who saw Pietersen in his pomp will ever forget the experience. A player of supreme skill and iron self-belief, he was of the most naturally gifted batsmen ever to grace the game, a talent that compared with Viv Richards or Sachin Tendulkar. Yet unlike the others in this elite band, his dedication to the team ethos always remained questionable.
It was said of the England batsman Ken Barrington that when he came out to bat, you could almost see the Union Jack fluttering out of his back pocket. That could never be said of Pietersen. His genius always came along with a curious sense of detachment – a feeling, somehow, that even when he was fighting his hardest, it was always for Pietersen Inc first and for his teammates second.
Thus he acquired a reputation for arrogance and selfishness that at times threatened to undermine his fellow players. While the English were winning, as they tended to do for much of his decade-long tenure, his tendency could be absorbed and tolerated. However, after England’s dismal capitulation to a resurgent Australian side in the 2013-14 Ashes series, the England selectors, in conjunction no doubt with captain Alastair Cooke, decided enough was enough. While Pietersen remained the leading run-scorer in the series, he had become an increasingly disruptive presence both on and off the field as the fortunes of the team sunk lower and lower. Or at least, that’s the accepted wisdom.
His book attempts to put his side of the story about the various dressing room spats and disagreements that blighted the series. The myriad accusations and rebuttals that swirl around within KP – talk of cliques, cronyism and bullying – seem more the stuff of the school playground than of professional sport. However, they leave unanswered the question of whether his services should have been so readily dispensed with.
So is Pietersen a self-obsessed show pony or merely a misunderstood genius? While his book makes a strong case for the latter, I have talked to too many England players in recent years to be in any doubt that there is no smoke without fire.
Indeed, when I asked one former England captain at a dinner recently for his opinion of this most mercurial of cricketers, he replied even before I’d finished the question. “A prat” was his tart pronouncement, before he added ruefully, “but an extremely talented one.”
What does seem certain is that his book will scupper any last, lingering hope he may ever have had entertained for a return to England colours. From now on, he seems destined to be the thing he was always perhaps suited for – a professional gun-for-hire, ready to display his dazzling virtuosity to the highest bidder, wherever in the world and in whatever form of the game it might be.
Those of us lucky enough to have seen him in his pomp will forever count ourselves blessed; yet for the man himself, there will be few who mourn his professional demise. For however great his individual genius, cricket must remain a team game.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins