It has been a long journey – from Pietermaritzburg to Ashes-winning hero to outcast to an unlikely kind of sporting martyrdom. And all of this has led many cricket fans to cast him as maverick outsider attempting to scale the England and Wales Cricket Board’s citadel of stuffed shirts and old school ties.
To appreciate just how far opinion has swung travel back less than three years to the third Test at Lord’s in the wake of Pietersen being dropped over sending text messages to England’s South African opponents in the second Test. They were either attempts at humour or amounted to a treacherous attempt to advise the opposition how to claim his captain’s wicket.
Strauss, almost universally considered the wounded party, enjoyed overwhelming public backing when he said there were “underlying issues with trust and respect” between him and Pietersen. This week, back at Lord’s, so much had changed but the language stayed the same. Yet now those same trust issues provoked snorts of derision from the public and an outpouring of support for Pietersen on social media and beyond.
A Praetorian guard of big names and former team-mates – Gary Lineker, Will Carling, Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan – came to his support, denouncing what they regarded as pettiness by Strauss and bemoaning the ECB’s inability to accommodate a unique talent. Even when Pietersen’s book was published last year, that mix of amusing put-downs and lengthy self‑justification, the split could be described as broadly 50-50 between those who cried good riddance and those who viewed his exile as endemic of all that is wrong with English sport.
Still, others could not have cared less and found the pantomime a distraction from more serious on-field and structural issues. But something has shifted in recent weeks. It is the coda to this unnecessary and often tediously long-winded saga that has solidified sympathy for Pietersen.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of who did what to whom in the England dressing room, the events of recent months have established in the public mind an image of a man wronged.
The minute Pietersen resolved to turn his back on the IPL and play for Surrey in a bid to get back into the England side, he minted a new image for himself. It was one that, in broad brushstrokes, cast him as a man who had gone out on a limb. In an extraordinary late twist to rival Agatha Christie, in the minds of many of the public he has come to stand for authenticity and the ECB for pomposity and weasel words.
For someone who had regularly been accused of putting mammon and personal ambition before his adopted country, it was an audacious move to pull off – but, like some of his best shots, he did it with aplomb. Rightly or wrongly, his majestic batting on Tuesday also played into that narrative. It invited the sporting public to connect him in their minds with other wronged mavericks under‑appreciated by the establishment, a long line from George Best through Paul Gascoigne to Ronnie O’Sullivan.
The fact that his “campaign”, such as it is, has been achieved with no real outside help apart from his agents at Mission Sports Management is significant. Social media has played a role too. Pietersen’s Twitter feed seems heartfelt and while the relentless chirping and sniping of his No1 backer, Piers Morgan, can be exhausting, it has undoubtedly helped keep the pages of the story turning.
Pietersen has largely been himself. That might mean he has come across at times as precious, infuriating, petty or petulant. But he has appeared authentic. The same cannot be said of the shifting sands of the ECB’s utterances or the clumsy, Orwellian language attached to reintegration and secret dossiers.
The comparison is not an exact one but there are parallels with the career of David Beckham – the man to whom he was often compared in those early days of tattoos, haircuts and tabloid interest.The view within cricket remains more nuanced and opinion over Pietersen more divided, but broader sentiment at home and abroad is undoubtedly with Pietersen. Amid all the score-settling and name-calling, one theme of Pietersen’s book was the extent to which personality and showmanship had slowly been bleached from the England side. In spluttering about the perceived pettiness of Strauss and siding with Pietersen, it is as though a lot of the public are also by implication taking his side on that too.
For the ECB, there is only regret he will not be on that India flight on Friday.
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