Kevin Pietersen, the most gifted England batsman of his generation and the player whose talismanic performances Australians fear more than any other, will not figure in the Ashes after all. England’s new director of cricket, Pietersen’s former captain Andrew Strauss, reportedly delivered the news on Monday night.
That the rumour spread around Australia alongside news that Pietersen had just notched up the first triple century of his career, an unbeaten 326 for Surrey, added another layer of comedy to the high farce that has been English cricket’s constant companion for the last 18 months.
A significant number of Australians will be delighted with this news and not just because they’ll now face a side of diminished intimidation factor – a strong currency within Darren Lehmann’s squad – but because the entire episode is so emblematic of this dithering, over-managed and underperforming England side.
If you piled on top of one another the column inches devoted to Pietersen’s sacking, every twist and turn of his attempted return via the world’s Twenty20 leagues and County Championship cricket for Surrey, then added them to all of the words spewed forth in his fascinating and self-aggrandising memoirs, the pile would surely reach the moon. Strauss is probably hoping that Pietersen will also relocate there on a mid-season transfer.
Australia can actually take some credit for this. It was out of their of their own period of inner turmoil and recriminations that Darren Lehmann rebooted the old school cricketing values of confrontation and aggression under which England’s neatly-programmed robots started to badly malfunction. Australia returned to the top by placing faith in players; their physiology and the force of their often-abrasive personalities.
England continued to invest in processes, ones that contributed just as heavily to the erosion their cricketing psyche as 150kmph Mitchell Johnson bouncers did. The decision to engineer Pietersen out of the frame altogether might not have been adopted with such zeal had the nature of that defeat to Australia not been so emphatic.
In its own way, Australia also enabled and stoked the flames of Pietersen’s comeback campaign for the Melbourne Stars during last season’s Twenty20 Big Bash League, feting him with the kind of fawning affection for visiting celebrity at which the country is also a world-leader. We appreciate you Kevin, even if they don’t. You’re the star Kevin, join the Stars. KP mania culminated in that self-indulgent, preening and utterly enthralling interview with Ricky Ponting, when Pietersen was beamed around the world pouring his heart out like a spurned lover.
No matter that the Big Bash’s two marquee guests – Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff – were both old enough for a veterans league, that summer soon felt like an encore parade of English cricket’s inadequacies. Their own domestic game was shown up as a crusty irrelevance, staid and curtained off behind a cable-TV paywall while the Australian version went out free-to-air, England’s greatest batsman standing front and centre with a broad, smug grin on his face and a ready put-down for those back home who’d wronged him.
Rarely do England rise to Ashes wins out of chaos such as this but even given the emphatic nature of his innings yesterday (seven hours at the crease should put paid to the theory that his body is too creaky) it’s important to place present-day Pietersen in context. Not since Mike Gatting in 1994 has an English batsman older than Pietersen’s 34 years posted an Ashes century. Sadly, selecting him and then telling him he’s sacked for the next Test on an endless loop is not an option. If it were, he’d be posting Bradmanesque numbers.
Still, Pietersen’s situation always presented Australians with something of a double-edged sword; had he played there was the possibility, however diminished by the relentless ticking of the body clock, that he might have produced a series for the ages. Now that he’s out of the picture, the secondary threat of a batsman sneaking up from nowhere is also in play.
In 2009 that player was Jonathon Trott, who came from outside Australia’s radar to score a series-clinching hundred on debut at the Oval. Scanning down the county run-makers list this time around, Australia might not be so fearful. They would have been with Pietersen puffing out his chest and swaggering his way to the crease, swinging his bat in windmills like a medieval mace.
To remember that 2009 series is to reinforce why Australians will be happy to see the back of Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen himself had succumbed to injury early in the series and it was locked at 1-1 after four Tests with the fifth evenly poised. When England finally prevailed after a summer-long arm wrestle it was on account of brilliant individual performances from Trott and Stuart Broad but also Graeme Swann.
Swann shared with Pietersen a trait beyond the basic levels of natural talent required to succeed at the highest level; he had the self-belief that he was simply better than anyone out there and could turn it on when it really mattered. As is so often the case, it was the difference between winning and losing an Ashes series.
This article was written by Russell Jackson, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 12th May 2015 04.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010