Pietersen needs handling with care

Ridiculed as "Dumbslog Millionaire", he has retreated into a shell, cutting a forlorn figure on the field, unsure of his footwork and suspicious of the men around him.

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"I can forgive, but I don't think I will ever forget," said Kevin Pietersen after his acrimonious exit as England captain last January. The key word was "ever". Pietersen is still hurting. Technical issues - his exaggerated trigger movements and his poor shot selection, to name just two - partly explain his poor form in South Africa, where he made just one fifty. But it is his change in demeanour that is raising alarm bells.

The Pietersen we knew and loved was pure Hollywood, an all-action hero, who loved playing the lead role. Now he seems more like a member of the support cast. Mr Ego has retreated into a shell, cutting a forlorn figure on the field, unsure of his footwork and suspicious of the men around him after the sacking of Peter Moores and himself. Sharing the dressing room with coach Andy Flower, a man Pietersen wanted sacked along with Moores, must be disconcerting.

Perhaps Pietersen is missing the support of former captain Michael Vaughan and the comforting presence of former manager Duncan Fletcher. He does not trust many besides Fletcher with his heavy-maintenance batting technique and sought Fletcher's expertise before coming to South Africa. In fact, Pietersen has not been the same batsman since Fletcher stepped down from the England job after the 2007 World Cup. The differences in his Test statistics are not so obvious, but his slide in one-day international cricket is revealing. Since the World Cup, where he has was among the leading run-scorers, till his sacking as captain, Pietersen had scored 1,021 runs from 36 ODIs at an average of more than 37. Before that, he boasted an average of more than 56.

Things, of course, have taken a turn for the worse since the captaincy issue. He averages 18.85 in ODIs and 39.25 in Tests since January 2009. The botched Achilles surgery he underwent in the summer has not helped matter either. Pietersen has hinted at the poor treatment he received from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) medics following the injury, but refused to "point fingers". Piers Morgan, a friend and former British tabloid editor, was more forthcoming. "It's taken nearly five months for KP to be fit again, for an injury that should have taken just two," he said. "And if you heard exactly how and why this happened, you'd be as enraged as he was."

Let down twice by the ECB, Pietersen seems to have revised his priorities in life. A couple of years ago, he had claimed that a Test century was the most satisfying thing imaginable. "For the record, my wife is much more important to me than any Test century," he said recently. Impending fatherhood - his pop star wife, Jessica is expecting their first child in May - could also be a reason for his apparent lack of focus.

Pietersen has been working as hard as ever in the nets and there have been the occasional reminders of his prodigious talent. But when you get branded "Dumbslog Millionaire" for one false shot, playing your natural, instinctive game must be hard. Perhaps that's the reason why he looks so inhibited now. Rediscovering that brash, inventive streak could be his only ticket out of the slump. He may also need an arm around the shoulder, as David Gower suggested. That could be the only way of saving Pietersen from becoming a Robinho at Manchester City.

"I'm ready to do a Robinho and disappear back home," Pietersen said in March after spending 11 weeks away from his wife. The alarm bells should have been ringing back then, but it is still not too late. Captain Andrew Strauss or Flower could yet bring the "Hotslog Millionaire" back. @Email:arizvi@thenational.ae