Let’s see if we can sum up Kevin Pietersen’s entire career by looking at one innings – but no, not by using that one

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Photo by Sarah Ansell

Terry’s been with the firm for 30 years, but he’s not retiring; he’s going part-time. A couple of years down the line Terry reduces his hours further and then a bit later still he says that he’s going to be available for jobs he’s already done a bit of work on but that he doesn’t want to start anything new. One day you suddenly realise that you haven’t seen Terry in a very long time.

So it is with cricketers these days. They just fade away. Other than grainy Twitter clips of him striking boundaries for the [insert city name] Sunbadgerers, we honestly can’t remember the last time we saw Kevin Pietersen play cricket. But he’s definitely retired now.

As we see it, there are two main ways you can go about covering a player’s retirement. (1) You trawl through the archives, pick out his finest innings and try and do a comprehensive career retrospective. (2) You sit down with a coffee and see what first comes into your head as being the peak moment.

The issue with taking the first approach for Kevin Pietersen is that as well as all the great innings, the task also entails wading through a whole heap of stuff about him falling out with people. We once described his feud with the ECB as being exactly like a soap opera because it never ends.

Our view of that thing is increasingly that it was a situation where fairly small stuff grew to seem like big stuff for a bunch of coaches and cricketers who had to spend morning, noon and night together. For context, in one of the more accidentally enlightening passages in his autobiography, KP said: “We are on the road for 250 days a year, we wear our England kit on most of these days … It never, ever ended.”

You don’t have to like the guy to read that sentence and sympathise a bit.

The other problem with the ‘some of his best innings’ approach is that, even cut short, Pietersen’s was a long career. It took in 104 Tests, a slightly greater number of one-day internationals and a World T20 win. You can’t really do a functional summary of something that sprawling, which leaves us with option two: you go with the moment you were most excited about and just sort of hope to hell that it speaks of some greater emotional truth that somehow crystallises his entire career.

Having made a coffee and consulted our head, the thing that we thought of as being the peak Kevin Pietersen moment was his first Test innings.

2005 KP (via YouTube)

We’d guess that somewhere around 99-100 per cent of you will disagree with that. Even those of you who picked something from the same year will probably go with his “series-winning” hundred at the Oval.

History, by The Verve, is a more powerful song than Bittersweet Symphony. However, you will almost never hear History played on the radio. This is an example of a phenomenon where a band earns attention for one song only for the following one to be wrongly identified as the more significant one in the long-term simply on the basis that it sold more. Eventually the big single becomes so all-pervasive that no-one really remembers the first one because that memory is never refreshed.

You can probably think of more and better examples. All we’re saying is that the 2005 Oval Test is an example of this in sport. Plenty of people think that Pietersen’s hundred defined the series and while it was of course hugely important, the series had to a great extent already been defined by then – there had already been four-and-a-half Test matches, after all. Pietersen’s was probably the key moment that was seen by most people, but that is not the same as being the best moment.

We’ve written before about how we found that whole fifth Test a slightly maudlin experience. Pietersen’s was an autumnal knock, both literally but also in the sense that if there was still much to look forward to in terms of his own career, it was already pretty clear even at the time that the zenith in terms of memorable summers was already drawing to a close.

The first Test had a different vibe. There’d been a hell of a preamble in terms of a crazy volume of adrenal one-day cricket, but Lord’s was where the posturing ended and the important stuff began.

But let’s go even further back, because we need to provide Kevin Pietersen’s back story.

Just before his Test debut, KP had a slight reputation for being awkward, but it wasn’t really thought of as being an insurmountable problem. Andrew Strauss would not at this point have called him a cunt. His personality was really just a background thing; something almost wholly overshadowed by his batting.

Back when there were no Lions in England in 2003-04, Pietersen toured India with England A and scored four centuries. Matt Prior did reasonably well on the same tour and pretty much no-one else emerged in credit. In terms of working out who England should pick to bat in the middle order in coming years, it was a pretty successful tour.

In 2004, the full England side played one-day series in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Kevin Pietersen was from South Africa and South Africa didn’t much like him.

Five innings into his one-day international career, Pietersen had been dismissed once, for a golden duck, and was averaging 234, scoring at near-enough a run a ball. In the fifth match against South Africa, Pietersen made his second hundred – an even 100 not out off 69 balls in an England defeat. In the seventh match (different times), he made 116 out of 240 and England lost again.

Presumably they were feeling magnanimous in victory, but the South African fans who had been giving him relentless shit throughout the series were also giving him a bit of applause by this point.

Forget everything that happened afterwards for a moment: this is the character who came to the crease at Lord’s in 2005 and he did so when England had been losing the Ashes for as long as anyone could remember. They had also been losing wickets to Glenn McGrath for as long as anyone could remember.

England’s score shortly after Pietersen emerged was 21-5 and Glenn McGrath had 5-7. All notions that maybe things were different this time around had been inserted into the bin.

England lost that match, but with his first (and second) innings in Test cricket, Pietersen reached into the bin, extracted those hopes, wrapped them up in clingfilm and said: “Let’s not be hasty. I think we can make something out of these yet.”

He made just 57 runs, but those 57 runs contained a lot of information and KP did three important things.

  • The first important thing that KP did was pretty much fuck-all. After 41 balls he’d scored nine runs. He faced McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee and pretty much just ignored them. He made it look like it was possible to not subside to 21-5.
  • The next important thing that KP did was he smashed Glenn McGrath for 14 runs in three balls. This was simply not a thing that happened to Glenn McGrath in any circumstances, let alone (a) against England and (b) when England had pretty much already collapsed.
  • The final important thing that KP did was he hit Shane Warne for six. Warne had barely bowled by this point and also dismissed KP with his very next delivery, but given KP’s one-day record at this point, hitting Warne for six definitely implanted the idea that Warne being hit for six might happen again and if Warne being hit for six by an England player could happen again, what the hell else could happen?

Pietersen’s second innings in that match was really just him elaborating on these three points. He hit Brett Lee for six, he hit Warne for six again. He made 64 not out as England were bowled out for 180. He said to his team-mates: “It is possible to hammer these bowlers and if it’s possible to hammer them then it’s definitely possible to just sort of hang around working the ball about making steady runs.”

He also said the exact same thing to the fans, which was even more important because the people in the stands were the batteries that powered that England side. That England side redefined what England fans thought their team could do and also how people thought they would go about it.

Kevin Pietersen sent out that message early and as a bonus he also gave the impression that he might play one or two innings that would be worth watching in the future.


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  1. I’d forgotten that Andrew Strauss called him a cunt. Also, I can’t tell if he’s still blocked me on Twitter because apparently I blocked him back. Oh yes, that was for an expression of sympathy to T**** for the all the abuse he receives. Carry on.

  2. Is History really better than This Is Music though?

    The album tracks on Urban Hymns were definitely better than those on A Nothern Soul.

    On a KP-related note, I have it in my head that the ODI series in South Africa was difficult to watch on TV (or possibly even not on TV, imagine), my abiding memory is of seeing scorecards/summaries on (the then free-to-air) Sky Sports News and thinking ‘this Kevin Pietersen chap sounds better than Ian Bell’.

    1. History is just different to This Is Music.

      Disagree on Urban Hymns. Think much of it was made to a “just add strings” formula, while A Northern Soul hangs together as one coherent thing.

      1. History is also pretty different to Bitter Sweet Symphony, I’d say.

        Maybe my respect for Catching The Butterfly, Space and Time, Come On, etc from Urban Hymns is more based on nostalgia for that particular period of time, but I remember it as much more than “just add strings”.

        Also, with reference to Prince Prefab’s comment below – I went to school with someone related to Paddy McAloon (I remember it being his cousin, but nephew would have made more sense, age-wise), but I don’t think anyone else in the school had heard of Prefab Sprout.

      2. I hope we can all agree that the Orville-the-duck-with-a-kazoo sound ruined their ‘comeback’ single in the mid-to-late 2000s though.

  3. Cars and Girls, by Prefab Sprout, is a more powerful song than King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. However, you will almost never hear Cars and Girls played on the radio. This is an example of a phenomenon where a band earns attention for one song only for the following one to be wrongly identified as the more significant one in the long-term simply on the basis that it sold more.

    1. Was interested to see what example you’d suggest. Guessed the Milltown Brothers but you very much went route one.

      1. Well, it sort of requires having had a hit. I don’t know if two weeks at number 38 counts.

  4. The Drugs Don’t Work breaks my heart every time. It might suffer from being tarnished by commercial success and it might be poignancy over art, but is does all the same.

    My memory of KP isn’t so much an innings as a habit- the way he would take a step towards the offside, or down the wicket before the delivery was bowled and be still and ready as the ball was delivered. It had a kind of science-meets-arrogance that summed him up for me.

    1. You may have noticed that we’ve also been posting a little less frequently. This just seems to be the way things are happening at the minute: longer, more rambling, less often.

      1. Welcome to my world…

        …the rambling bit, not the paid by the word bit. Sadly.

        Anyway, I witnessed most of the innings you have chosen (runs-wise) by attending Day 2 of the 2005 Lord’s test. I was also there on Day 5 of the 2005 Oval Test, so I witnessed all of that one.

        On a similar note, I have recordings of both King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Cars & Girls. I have also seen Prefab Sprout live, but that was 1985 – prior to the release of both of those songs.

        Am I making sense?

  5. I’m not sure that KP is a cunt. Sure, he fell out with his teams mates over the years, but the nature of professional cricket is that of being stuck in a close environment with your team mates for day after day, week after week and month after month. In the kind of environment where a single mistake is magnified; a poor shot putting you back in the hutch for the day followed by a period of introspection worrying about your place in the team it’s easy to see how a “character” could grate after a while.

    Compare this to footy where you play 90 mins once or twice a week and go home every night: such a character would be an arse at the worst or maybe even a bit of a twat, but never a cunt.

    On the other hand he is very good friends with Piers Morgan……

  6. I’m a bit sad that KP is retiring, but its uniqueness at least it provides a potential badum-tish moment.

    I mean, how often has “retiring” been an appropriate adjective for KP?

  7. Excellent choice, KC, and very well argued. Pietersen came to the England team entirely unsullied by the previous eighteen years, and therefore better able than most to just get on and play cricket. It makes you wonder how much of that dark time was actually due to the psychological hold the Aussies had over England, as opposed to purely their cricketing superiority. That series was defined by a set of English players throwing off the shackles and just playing cricket. Trescothick, Vaughan, Flintoff, Hoggard, Harmison, Jones (S) – I wonder to what extent they saw the KP innings and thought to themselves, “Fuck it, in for a penny, in for a pound.”

    But just to bring it back to the 5th Test, KP said of his 158 (7 sixes) that he realised very quickly that he could either defend and get out or attack and get out. So he chose the latter as a piece of straightforward pragmatism. His opponent at that point, as far as this choice was concerned, wasn’t the Australian attack, it was the English media. Had he been out cheaply they’d have crucified him, and no amount of explanation of the situation would have helped him. On commentary, CMJ was having what my friend described as a “pink fit”, as if he was witnessing something not only special, but also naughty, as if his house master had walked into his prep school dorm at midnight and caught the boys drinking pop, but had brought fifteen more bottles for them to enjoy. “Cripes,” he would have exclaimed.

    I get the sense that this innings, for all its exuberance and glory, was the start of the schism between him and the English cricket establishment. They had enjoyed it, loved it even, but they did not understand it. It left them feeling confused. Pietersen was an alien in their midst. When it was going well they could tolerate him, but as soon as it started to go badly he had to go. There were other people, better people, people with more appropriate families, who might or might not get the job done but who for certain would not cause any existential class angst.

    One of the greats, and a defining part of those ten years. Probably also a cunt, but as I recall saying at the time, I wanted him to score runs for England, not marry my daughter (*).

    (*) I haven’t got a daughter. I made this bit up.

  8. There’s a documentary on the iPlayer at the moment about UB40. It’s a really sad story as they’ve all fallen out, but reads a lot like the England Cricket story, with KP played by Ali Campbell.

    By the way talking of being defined by the wrong song, UB40’s early political stuff is brilliant and almost completely ignored nowadays.

    1. Also while I’m on, I always wondered whether history was a homage to London by William Blake or a rip off. I’m going with the latter.

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