Pietersen may hit cultural boundaries

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One of the minor improvements in British life over the past 30 years has been the advent and acceptance of women journalists in sporting press boxes. This has had many advantages, not least the way the best of them are able to use their skills, personal as well as professional, to gain insights that would elude any bloke.

There is a classic example in the latest edition of The Wisden Cricketer magazine where the newest star of English cricket, Kevin Pietersen, reveals rather more than might be prudent to a skilful, but ingenuous-looking, interviewer, Emma John.

Pietersen is the young man who surged into the England one-day team during the winter and smashed three centuries in six innings against South Africa while the English team as a whole, fresh from its triumph in the Test series, crumpled in a heap.

He took on a hostile crowd with awesome power and confidence; Pietersen could hardly have made a more spectacular entrance if he had landed by parachute which, in a sense, he did.

For Pietersen is no ordinary England player. He comes from Natal, and switched countries simply because he could, and because he objected to the post-apartheid system in South Africa of fast-tracking non-white cricketers. Hence the hostility of the crowd.

If he carries on this way, Pietersen will soon be a mainstay of the England team. He is very likely to make his Test debut in May, in the mini-series against Bangladesh which provides a not very appetising hors d'oeuvre to the Ashes battle against Australia this summer.

This should be a moment for English cricket to savour: a huge new talent bursting through to join a successful team. But it doesn't feel that way.

Pietersen's arrival is causing unease among his fellow-professionals, many of whom regard him as a cocky little pillock - he has already had to switch counties, from Nottinghamshire to Hampshire, because he fell out with his team-mates. And it is regarded with just as much unease by many cricket-watchers, who prefer English players to be just that. No one loves a floor-crosser, on either side of the house.

If Pietersen is aware of any of this, he seems to ride above it. His interview, like his batting, is a world away from traditional English caution. He catches his hair, reflected in a window. Ms John catches the moment: "Hair's good, isn't it? If it had looked rubbish, I'd have knocked it on the head. But I'm a good-looking lad. I can pull anything off, eh?" This does not appear to be said with what you might call English irony or self-deprecation.

When he reached his maiden century in Bloemfontein, he kissed the three lions on his helmet with a passionate smacker. "I love the country. I love the people. I love all the players. I love the management," he says now. That's England he's talking about.

The concept of England is an inherently tricky one. The very name excludes three of the four components of the United Kingdom. And the aftermath of empire means that many players have tangled roots.

The entire cricketing family, with only 10 full members, is a small but dysfunctional one, and the effects of the imperial experience are still capable of fouling the air at family gatherings. The Zimbabwe crisis over the past few years has provided one unpleasant example; and the International Cricket Council's decision to uproot itself from Lord's to Dubai is only partly a rational choice to find a favourable tax regime it is also the product of Asia's desire to yank the game away from Mother England.

The apartheid issue almost tore the game asunder. And in the 20 years South Africa spent in cricketing exile, many of their players rediscovered convenient English roots and played for England.

Tony Greig rose briefly to the captaincy; Allan Lamb and Robin Smith both built long and successful Test careers.

But England supporters never really took any of them to their hearts. Few cricket-watchers had much difficulty in distinguishing between players whose families had genuinely migrated to Britain and those who were simply furthering their careers.

The South Africans were accepted after all, English supporters have often been grateful for anyone who can play a bit, but they were never loved.

The same applied to Graeme Hick, who opted for England instead of being the cornerstone of Zimbabwe's infant Test team. He came into the side with even greater expectations than Pietersen, but never fulfilled them. I am convinced his own sense of being less than entirely welcome was a factor in this.

Pietersen is a far more buoyant and flamboyant character from Hick. He is very different from most of the players already in the dressing room. He bats and talks with a refreshing lack of inhibition. But he may find there are cultural barriers less easy to overcome than the South African bowlers.

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