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Top cricketers have a strange kind of celebrity: they are huge in a quarter of the world, unknown everywhere else. And this month there is no one in cricket more famous/infamous than Kevin Pietersen.
Yet when he walks into his chosen restaurant in the traditional capital of Planet Cricket, no one seems to give him a second glance, though he is 6ft 4in and striking. The restaurant is Zuma, a “contemporary Japanese” almost opposite Harrods, but without anyone Japanese in sight. The waiters are English; the clientele wealthy wanderers. No wonder he feels at home here.
Pietersen emigrated from South Africa, barely out of his teens, to become the best cricketer in the England team. Now 34, he faces exile again, perhaps for ever, reduced to plying his trade in big-money but unmemorable quick-fire tournaments elsewhere: India, Australia, the West Indies, maybe even the US. Not in England, not for England, not in either of cricket’s pinnacles, the Ashes or the World Cup.
At first, he was thought to be an off-spin bowler. He turned out to have a blazing talent as a batsman: powerful, fearless, determined, inventive. He played shots, like his trademark one-legged “flamingo”, that no one had seen before. Very soon he was identified by his initials alone. By 2005 KP was eligible for the England team, a final and crucial piece in the jigsaw that enabled England to wrest the Ashes from Australia after 18 miserable years. He went on to play 104 Tests, averaging more than 47 runs per innings – both benchmarks of quality.
Admiration for his skill was universal; respect was more elusive. After a decade in which Pietersen’s outsize and distinctive personality had continually grated against the customs and ethos of a team game, the England and Wales Cricket Board announced earlier this year that the side would “move forward” without him. This is payback time, and the end of a frantic but exhilarating period for him. His book, KP: The Autobiography, has been not so much published as detonated: a bomb planted under the English cricket establishment and the England dressing room, particularly his enemies inside both. And it has exploded a treat. His face and opinions have been dominating news bulletins and papers and Twitter feeds – especially the Twitter feeds – all week.
At Zuma, the interviews almost done, he is relaxed, delighted to accept the suggestion of a decent bottle. The next day he was off to buy a Labrador puppy for his kids. Then there was a charity match in South Africa and a trip darting rhinos for conservation purposes. He was really up for that: “If anyone said when I was young, what would you rather do, play international cricket or be a game ranger, that would have been a hard question to answer.” His favourite channel is Animal Planet.
“Zuma.” I muse. “So it’s a KwaZulu-Natal restaurant?” It takes him time to remember South Africa’s president. “Oh, Jacob!” Then he decides that’s funny. He is not very hot on politics, including the politics of everyday life. Which explains his current situation.
In 2000 he came over to play for Nottinghamshire, walking out on the Natal provincial team after being omitted from a couple of matches because of the racial quotas brought in to speed South African cricket’s recovery from apartheid. In his book he says he regrets not the decision but the ignorance that propelled his motives.
He played for three English counties, and ending up leaving them all, as he did Natal, in, well, difficult circumstances. And his England career was always contentious. There were three major bust-ups: one, in 2009, after he had been briefly appointed captain, was a massive fallout with the coach, Peter Moores, resolved by both being forced out of their positions; another, labelled “textgate”, involved allegations that he sent disloyal texts to South African opponents in 2012; the third, and presumably last, came earlier this year when he was axed after the Ashes were catastrophically lost, despite being the team’s highest-scoring batsman. Moores is now back; Pietersen is out, doomed to wander the globe, luxuriously but in shadow.
We have met before: I spent a day with him when he was promoting a previous book in a way that seemed a bit too show-offy. I was not the first person to find KP a bit bumptious: some opponents called him FIGJAM, the last five letters standing for “I’m great, just ask me”.
Yet over lunch he’s charming, solicitous, nice as pie. It feels genuine, too, not forced. The build-up to publication had not been charming: one of his many tweets read: “WAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! MY CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT EXPIRES AT MIDNIGHT TONIGHT . . . ” Nor is the book charming; I say it seemed like a howl of rage. He doesn’t care for that.
A public session of therapy, perhaps? That was more like it. “While I was under a regime I was not allowed to say anything against the management,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to speak up. If I tweeted something, I was in trouble. If I said anything. This has been one of the most therapeutic experiences, to get my side of the story out. The public have been fed lie after lie after lie, leak after leak after leak. I’ve had wonderful support from a lot of players and ex-players.”
I tell him that my dad always said there are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth.
“Yes, and I’m allowed to give mine. Do you want some rice?”
The Rippon Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, recommended by the waiter as an alternative to Cloudy Bay, is going down a treat, as it should have done, I discover on paying the bill. I let him take charge of ordering but he courteously checks my preferences. The food comes tapas-style, pleasantly, undemandingly, without intruding on the conversation. He has plenty to say and I have plenty to ask.
His most startling allegation is that there has been a culture of bullying in the England team, some players being berated for small lapses. Were you bullied? I ask. Yes, he says, on a parody Twitter account, called @KPgenius, which he has claimed was orchestrated by some teammates. “But you’re Kevin Pietersen!” I exclaim. “You hit the ball harder than anyone I know.”
“They didn’t abuse me on the field like they abused others. But I had a public humiliation being run from inside the dressing room [this last aspect has been denied]. Other players following it, retweeting it. Trying to take the mickey out of my personality, trying to diminish what I’ve achieved on the cricket field. You think that’s funny?”
Is there a fine line between bullying and teasing? “Yes. Teasing stays within the dressing room. Bullying ventures out. Bullying on the field of our players was noticed by the Australians and the South Africans. You’ve had two of the greatest captains in the world come out this week supporting me. There’s banter in the dressing room, taking the piss out of your mates. I’m all for that. But youngsters being intimidated for not fielding a cricket ball, I’m not having that.”
Anyone who has played cricket has been sworn, yelled and glared at for dropping a catch. And Test cricket is a game in which individual reputations are won and lost inside a team context, and that makes for high tension. It is meant to be tough. Two recent England players have withdrawn from the battlefield citing mental stress, but their problems were always said to be internal, not external. The usual allegation against England teams has been that they are soft and complacent.
I wonder if Pietersen’s serial problems in England, at both county and national level, are more to do with his own status as an outsider. It seems to me he has never come to terms with English culture: the subtlety, the nuances, the use of irony, the small hypocrisies. He doesn’t disagree.
“In English dressing rooms they don’t like people speaking out. They don’t like people asking questions that they think are too direct. And they don’t like having their opinions questioned. And my personality is that if I think something’s wrong, I’ll say, ‘Mate, I think there’s something wrong here.’ And if I think something’s right, I’ll say, ‘Bang on, mate. I think that’s brilliant.’ I think in this country South Africans will rub people up the wrong way because of their directness.”
Yet, oddly, the chief villain of his book is Andy Flower, England’s coach for five years between Moores’ defenestration in 2009 and his reinstatement this year. Flower was born in Cape Town and brought up in old Rhodesia. Yes, says Pietersen. “But he’s one of the best game-players, politicians, one of the best man-managers upwards. And that’s one of the great frustrations for me. I thought I would have a great relationship with him. But he’s too interested in politics.”
Flower was so secretive outsiders hardly knew he was there. Pietersen, however, was always unmistakable: whether larruping the ball to the boundary or losing his wicket ridiculously or being provocative on Twitter. In his early days with England he had the three-lions crest tattooed on his huge left bicep, which struck many English cricket-followers as pushy and crass; and, after scoring his first century for England in Bloemfontein, he kissed the lions on his helmet with a lover’s passion, which irritated the South Africans as well. It was tone-deaf, like tweeting WAHAHA . . .
Do you think, I ask him, that however long you’ve been here, and however much you’ve done for England as a player, you will still always be an outsider?
“Maybe. Because of my heritage, yeah. Maybe people still want to see an Englishman performing for England. It’s a good news story. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Do you think, not that they were right to sack you, but that they had the right to sack you?” I have to repeat the question, and then there’s a long pause. He makes a characteristic thinking gesture, wrinkling his nose and making a chewy motion. “They probably thought so. I didn’t.”
Since the cricket authorities have been quiet and furtive and Pietersen loud and unconvincing, it has been hard to gauge why exactly he was booted out. I sense there was no dark secret or smoking gun: the management just reached the same conclusion that afflicts the gifted but difficult in every business – that sometimes even the most valuable employees can become more trouble than they’re worth. He has never worked in an office, so it is hard to explain what I mean. I ask whether he thought he might be hard to handle.
“To a decent man-manager, piece of cake!” And he reels off a list of captains and coaches with whom he was on good terms. “Piece of cake!” he repeats. “I’ve got a friend in business who said to me: ‘I’ve got people in my office who make me millions and millions of dollars. But you know what? I look after them because they’re the ones who give me my results.’”
But would you accept that’s a legitimate explanation of what happened?
“I think sport might be a little bit different to business in the circumstances. The paying public pay a lot of money to watch sportsmen perform. There are lot of sponsors involved. There are so many people who have said to me, ‘What a disgrace! No matter who you got on with, you should be entertaining me on a cricket field.’”
Do you think it’s more likely that you’ll be able to do that after the book than before?
“There’s a lot of pressure from the public, there’s a lot of support for me.”
But it will fade?
“Yes. But it won’t fade if England lose and lose and lose. Because the public now know my story. You watch.”
There is, however, another way in which sport is different from other businesses: the timescale is truncated. The protean, Beckham-esque changes of coiffure (currently in spiky mode) cannot disguise that his hair is now flecked with silver. And a 34-year-old in cricket, even a batsman of supreme ability and fitness, is less valuable than a 29-year-old. “I think I’ve got four years left in me as a batter,” he says. Very probably, if he hadn’t royally insulted so many people who might have sustained him.
Despite this, he insists that he is moving on, and there is some evidence for this. On the one hand, his website calls him “Kevin Pietersen MBE. International Cricketer”, whereas Twitter refers only to his businesses. “My management company runs the website and it probably hasn’t been updated. I run the Twitter account.” Yet you don’t get 1.98m followers by owning the odd niche clothing company and a beach club in Dubai.
How many times have you been on Twitter today? I ask. So he counts for me. “Nine.” It was just after two o’clock. “Some of them are retweets,” he adds hastily.
On the cricket field, one impulsive mistake by a batsman can undo hours of patient craftsmanship. But Pietersen’s misjudgements have usually been outweighed by the brilliance of his instincts and execution. He has tried to trust his instincts and impulses in his tweeting, his talking, his professional relationships and his approach to autobiography. But in these spheres he has been less sure-footed.
Over lunch, I really grew to like him. But it seemed to me sad that a man can have such gifts for a team game without realising everything that playing as part of a team entails – and is becoming grey-haired without quite grasping how the world actually works.
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist and former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack
Illustration by James Ferguson