PETER ROEBUCK on Kevin Pietersen’s quest to rediscover himself in KwaZulu-Natal

2010-09-11 00:00

KEVIN Pietersen’s return to his roots serves several purposes. Apparently he is coming back to KZN to play a couple of matches for the province before joining his preferred comrades in Australia. As far as he is concerned it is a smart move, and suggests that his brain is starting to function properly again. Of course, he will play in the Ashes. It’s a big series for big men. No country in its right mind leaves out a player of his calibre, or not for long anyhow. His omission from the current one-day matches was a timely move intended to wake him from his self-indulgent slumber.

Plain as day Pietersen had lost his way. Form and fitness have deserted him and his grey matter has been in disarray. Of late he has made a lot of dubious decisions and has managed to upset both county and adopted country. Indeed, he has left Hampshire and moved mid-season to Surrey where, recovering some of his élan, he promptly scored a hundred.

Previously he had represented Nottinghamshire. The counties are piling up. Some men spend their entire careers with the same mob.

Pietersen’s problem has been his judgment. In the early part of his career it was reliable. Fuelled by ambition, turning every sleight to advantage, ceaseless in his effort, he rose from the pack at Maritzburg College to the great stages of the game. He came, saw and conquered.

Along the way Pietersen proved to be a fearless and sharp practitioner. Every move was calculated, every shot was shrewdly chosen. He had an extraordinary sense of destiny and, so, direction. Of course he took risks. Domination tolerates no timidity. Certainly he was unorthodox. But he knew himself, knew his game, knew the price and was prepared to pay it. Indeed he craved attention. At first England did not much like his naked ambition, but he kept scoring runs and respect grew. Not that he has ever been as popular as Andrew Flintoff, a lesser cricketer blessed with the common touch. That has been a blow. He is more fragile than he seems.

Pietersen emerged as a formidable batsman, one of the best around. And then it all began to go wrong. Losing the England captaincy upset the apple cart. Hitherto he had not suffered a serious setback. It was the same with Ian Botham when he was dumped as captain of his country. In both cases the appointment was foolish and the ditching correct. In both cases the toppled were resentful. Both believed in their invincibility. Both lashed out. But Botham immediately resumed playing under Mike Brearley, a sagacious greybeard able to nurse bruised egos and release frustrated talents. Pietersen’s found himself playing under rivals.

Ever since, Pietersen has been fighting himself and his game. His strength has become his weakness. His rise told of restlessness. Now that same energy was his undoing. Consolidation has proved beyond him. He had to keep pressing and so made mistakes, missed the start of the 2009 season making his packet in the IPL. He reached England rich, sore, loose and poorly prepared for Test cricket. And cricket does not like to be taken for granted. England regained the Ashes more or less without him. It was another blow.

Although not without their highlights, including England’s triumph in the T20 World Cup, the last two seasons have been unsatisfactory. Pietersen has hardly played for his county, has become a man apart. At the crease he has been a shuffling caricature of himself. The instincts that he trusted so much have let him down. Everything has been spinning out of control.

Accordingly his eagerness to turn out for KZN is laudable. In every respect he is going back to basics. Doubtless he is looking forward to seeing family and friends and to braaiing, and so forth.

Moreover, he is going to play some first-class cricket again. It will give him a chance to get his mind and game in order. Nets are not enough. It’s the torrid struggle in the middle that counts.

If Pietersen has learnt his lessons then he will come again. After all, he remains a brave and bold batsman of high expertise. Hubris has been his undoing. The game is not about him, or anyone else. He needs to get back to work, in the gym, in the nets and in the middle, needs to restore the delicate balance between arrogance and application that underpinned his success.

Only one reservation can be held about the plan to invite him to play for KZN in October. Since when has a proud and independent South African province been a practice ground for outsiders? But he is playing for nothing and the displaced youngster can learn from him before replacing him in November.

On balance it is worth it.


• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in Pietermaritzburg.

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