I am not a great fan of the money-spinning “celebrity ‘auto’biography” but last week, being an ever so dogmatic cricket parishioner, I read KP by Kevin Pietersen.
My aim was not so much to discover the batsman’s inner thoughts than to learn more about an era of cricket I had experienced as an equally delighted and disappointed fan.
As a lover of contrition laden Catholic novels of the early 20th century, it struck me that KP showed similar traits to many of their fictional characters.
Like a Greene or Waugh character (though language is rather more prosaic), Pietersen spends many pages deep in personal conflict; struggling in pathos, receiving and offering apologies, loving his fellow man, and ultimately ruminating on the age old question of “what has man made of man”
Sadly, I never had the fortune on my many forays to Lord’s to see the great man properly ‘in’ or flowing so naturally that the bat was like an extension of his soul. I was though present for an uncharacteristically dour 50 – exceptional in that he was batting on one achilles!
Mr Pieterson comes across as a real but contradictory character – a stellar team man yet a bit of a loner, a South African boy and an English man, England’s greatest run scorer but a pantomime villain, a rebel without a cause however at times a conservative man with a lust to lead.
The ECB are presented as belligerent suits, with the emotions of a Victorian father. Like boards across the world they revel in their role of venal kingmakers. Pietersen rightly points out the gross hypocrisy of the ECB who banned him from the IPL but then allowed a criminal to land a helicopter onto the hallowed turf – all for a seedy £20 million. If ever there was a chapter to delete from cricket’s history that was it.
Salacious tit bits aside, the saddest discovery was that heroes on the pitch were perhaps not so angelic off it. For the outsider it was it was obvious Andy Flower was not a man to be stuck having a beer with, but I did rather like Matt Prior’s brilliantly selfless on field manner – cheerlessly the more the onion was peeled (or the cheese was spread) the less I found appealing.
In reality I don’t want to know about players off-field characters, other than their occasional drunken antics. I am most concerned that they give me joy and memories on the 22-yards.
I remember shedding a tear when Flintoff ended his era with a die-hard five for at Lord’s, Darren Gough’s sparkling hat-trick at Sydney, and Alistair Cook’s study of ultimate ‘run getting’ as captain in the 2012 series in India. It was not their demeanour that touched my garden of emotion but the way they won their place in the cricketing Pantheon.
KP reached these peaks many times; lofting the world’s fastest bowler nonchalantly back over his head was perhaps the most exciting. The book asks for our understanding of a sportsman who will rage against the dying light. It also illuminates KP’s long memory in private, especially when centring on dear friends and spiteful enemies.
The world’s media is always after a new Hamlet, when often a quality Lear should be watched. But my continual delight, as an armchair fan, is watching an old stager recapture that old glimmer of youth and show the world that he still had it. Think of an autumnal Nicklaus at Augusta in ’86 or the written off Kauto Star’s magic King George win in 2011.
Pietersen, who sadly never bonded with his direct contemporaries, had great reverence for his seniors and doted on the young and talented. Rather like the genius batsman he replaced, Graeme Thorpe it would have been interesting to watch the older KP as he had to use more tenacity and mental strength to replace his physical power. I would have loved to see the old pro shepherd through a few young rabbits – peppered with a few more days in the English sun – into what could be a brave new world.
The sad thing for a player who played to his own beat was that he never went out on his own terms. When Shane Warne, another cricketing avant-garde genius, went out of Test Cricket at the top and left us asking why he is retiring not why is he still here?
In years to come I will not think of the Ashes defeat or the resulting mudslinging. I will remember Pieterson at the peak of his powers, as all sportsmen should be, hooking a Brett Lee bouncer off his nose for six in 2005.