November 20, 2013

Kevin Pietersen - 99 not out

Kevin Pietersen - or KP by which larger-than-life abbreviation he is often called - is many things. What is frustrating for the casual observer though is that he is many things which are apparently often irreconcilable. As a sensitive man, he has brought trouble (not least of all upon himself). A swashbuckler, he suffers (some would say, suffered) frailty towards anyone gently lobbing the ball with the wrong arm. He is a (coldly?) calculative modern individual who has not made a secret of his desire for the IPL money, but who still finds immense pride in his performances for  England. 

Kevin Pietersen is indeed many things. However, as Mark Nicholas remarks eloquently in his generous and insightful tribute to the boy from Pietermaritzberg who is a man on the eve of his 100th Test for a country in another hemisphere, these many things should not cloud the ambitious genius that is the essence of the man - an essence that has served the England team far better on the field than the controversies off it would allow some to see. 

Granted, 'genius', like 'awesome' is a word thrown about increasingly casually in an era where most people achieve some degree of fame for two full minutes thanks to the social media. In my view, the description, however, becomes KP in a manner in which it became two other cricketers, a certain Shane Keith Warne and Brian Charles Lara.

With the former, KP shares a scarcely camouflaged love for theatre: a lofted drive from Kevi(n) and a tantalisingly dipping leg break from Warney are a sight for the gods, so it is little wonder that mortals go bonkers at the sight of these two narcissistic - and highly intelligent - performers in their element. There is an off-field aside too the Warne-Pietersen connection: both men court, in spite of their considerable intellects, trouble with the consistency with which they court awe. Consequently (or not) they never shy away from having each other's backs, although Warne, with clearly more time on his hands, outdoes KP at this sort of a thing.

With the latter, KP shares everything except height - that is the lack thereof - and the top hand on the bat. For Lara's high back lift, which in its speedy formation resembled a shimmering wooden arc, read KP's bat, held like a periscope, its bottom skywards, often at ninety degrees, moments before coming down to contact the ball. For Lara's ferocious square cut that used to race behind square point, read Pietersen's front foot pull stroke which, regardless of the pace of the incoming delivery, often ends up well in front of square. Lastly - and only owing to length considerations - for Lara's dance down the pitch  followed by the neat swing of the arms sending the ball soaring over long-on, as prompted by the follow through, read Pietersen's decisive sashay, long stride upon long stride, before the ball is lofted into the ground beyond deep mid wicket. I once wrote that I would not mind paying to watch Lara bat; I would not mind paying to watch Pietersen either.

There is little doubt that that unmistakable strut and that outrageous creativity of stroke-making - arguably matched among contemporaries only by AB De Villiers - are the things that make Pietersen a crowd puller. Unlike many risk takers, however, who hedge their manner of play by arguing for natural style over restraint and pointing unconvincing fingers at past records, Pietersen marches on - thanks to a solid work ethic, all told - seldom drawing too much attention to his own completed innings; giving lie to the portrait of an overly self-absorbed man that his fiercest detractors paint of him. Pietersen's pride at sighting a hundredth Test cap - previously won for England by Geoffrey Boycott, David Gower, Graham Gooch, Sir Ian Botham, Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart, all stalwarts - is, however, understandable for it testifies to his durability, often eclipsed by the seemingly congenital opulence of his stroke play and life's ways.

KP now enters his sixth Ashes series. Recall that his debut series was also an Ashes agreed upon by Australians and Englishmen alike as the best in two decades. Following a consistent run of scores, KP duly stamped his seal upon that series with a murderous, series-salvaging 158 against Warne and Company in the concluding act at the Oval.  This time though, he enters a little south of ideal form just like his captain - and beneficent benefactor - Cook. Memories of his tone-setting double hundred at the Adelaide Oval in 2010 would no doubt give him cause for optimism, however. As would the fact that he has, since said double hundred, conquered conditions as vastly different as Headingley and Mumbai and bowling attacks as vastly different as South Africa's and India's with two of the finest attacking innings - 149 and 186 - of the generation. These innings reveal a batsman at the peak of his powers against the best on the field even when his mind is playing tricks off it. With those tricks all but tucked away now, who knows what can KP do!

Score a triple hundred on Boxing Day at the G? Run up a 60 ball hundred in the fourth innings to steal a chase on a turning strip at Sydney Cricket Ground (Bill Lawry's commentary for company)? While we wait for time to give us the answers, Australia beware: Kevin Pietersen is in town.  


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