Members of England's cricket team are heroes again in the eyes of the country, having won an unprecedented 11 out of 13 Tests last year. Yet, strangely, the player on everyone's lips in the early days of the new season has yet to represent England in the traditional five-day game.
Kevin Pietersen, however, is no ordinary cricketer, whether in terms of personal history, talent or personality.
In 2001, the then 20-year-old decided to “defect” in cricketing terms from his native South Africa and play in England, deciding that the “ridiculous” provincial quota system, a post-apartheid selection initiative, was hindering his prospects.
He joined Nottinghamshire and immediately demonstrated his prodigious batting talent, scoring 1,275 runs in his first season at an average of 57.95. He continued in similar vein the following season, at one point hitting four centuries in a week.
Such form saw him selected for the England Academy side for whom he also excelled. And finally, his four-year qualification period having been served, he was chosen for the full England one-day team on last winter's tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Somewhat presciently, Pietersen's English mother had secured him a British passport when he was 16. Nothing she could have done, though, could have prepared him for his return in an England shirt. Not since Graeme Hick metamorphosed from Zimbabwean to Briton in 1991 had an England cricketer been under such pressure at the outset of his international career. Not since Kepler Wessels led South Africa against Australia in 1993, a decade after he had played for Australia, had a cricket encounter held such potential for unpleasantness.
Yet Pietersen's talent is matched only by his self-confidence and ambition, which at times make him a first-class irritant. So his response to what even he described as “frightening” abuse was a provocative “skunk-punk” haircut, a match-winning innings and three centuries against South Africa, including the quickest (off 69 balls) ever made for England.
What irked some South Africans even more than those runs more than Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss combined was the ostentatious kiss Pietersen planted on his helmet upon scoring his maiden century. “There he was, an adopted Englishman with a rather Afrikaans surname,” wrote Simnikiwe Xabanisa of the Johannesburg Sunday Times, hitherto an admirer, “giving the English badge the fulsome benefit of his puckered lips in Bloemfontein of all places. Pietersen cannot be a history buff because he would know that the Afrikaners, particularly those in Bloemfontein, hate the English because they set up concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War. To come and lord his Englishness over them was the worst possible insult.”
That England will select him for this summer's series against Australia seems beyond debate. Why ignore one of the few men capable of frightening such formidable opposition? Of the near-1,000 responses to a poll run by The Wisden Cricketer and cricinfo.com, 83 per cent believed he should play against Australia. Indeed, 42 per cent could not understand why South Africans resent him.
Graeme Smith, South Africa's captain, has the answer. “He ran out when things got tough,” he said.
And Omar Henry, until recently South Africa's convenor of selectors, reinforces Smith's view. As the first non-white to represent South Africa, fighting iniquitous selection systems was his mission. “Twenty years ago, many coloured cricketers felt the same. But the reality now is that you will be picked if you're good enough, irrespective of colour.”
Such comments are unlikely to worry Pietersen, known as “KP” to one and all. For unlike Hick, he is burdened neither by mental fragility nor self-effacement. His assets, says Mick Newell, the Nottinghamshire manager, are plain: “Positive, attacking, fantastic hand-eye co-ordination. And he always believes he's better than the opposition. It's that southern hemisphere attitude we used to be jealous of in England, what we called arrogance but is just self-belief. We're not so jealous now because our players are developing those attitudes.”
Newell's compliments are all the more pertinent for their context: during his last two years in Nottingham, the relationship between Pietersen and the club deteriorated. A row with captain Jason Gallian in 2003 saw him demand his release; only at the last did he withdraw a threat of legal action and honour his contract.
“I don't think he sets out to wind people up but he does,” says Newell, who claims Pietersen's tendency to “live life at 100mph” has hampered his development as an off-spinner, a trade more reliant than most on patience. “He used that row as a get-out clause, but then realised he couldn't win the case. Because he's ambitious, he knuckled down.”
After seeing out his contract with Nottinghamshire, Pietersen joined Hampshire this season and has already hit one explosive 61 off 51 balls, including five fours and three sixes.
Newell's pleasure at Pietersen's success for England in South Africa was tainted somewhat: Nottinghamshire's contribution to his development, predictably, was overlooked. “To be fair, we got four good years from him. Last year we won two promotions and he got the runs he wanted, so it worked out well for everyone.”
And referring to the Test career beckoning the player, he adds: “Notts followers know they've seen the best of him as a county cricketer. He won't be playing much of it over the next few years.”