It would have been easy to omit Kevin Pietersen from this list on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour, but it would also have been most unjust. He has played some of the most extraordinary innings I have witnessed either as a player, commentator or spectator, and it is those that I would rather remember than the unseemly way in which his England career was brought to an end.
Pietersen ranks as one of the game’s greatest entertainers. When he walked out to bat, you simply had to watch because he was capable of amazing things.
He manufactured shots other people had not thought of and found original ways to attack some of the greatest bowlers of all time, such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Muttiah Muralitharan and Dale Steyn, whom lesser mortals were simply content to keep out. In the end, he took more risks than the England management was prepared to tolerate in a team that was struggling (this was one of his ‘crimes’, though not apparently the only one), but it was the risk-taking that made him such a
spellbinding sight. It requires daring and bravery to play the way he did because there are commentators, colleagues and team management all ready to question you if it all goes horribly wrong. To his immense credit, everything he tried in the middle had been thought through and practised in the nets, exhaustively so. It takes guts to keep playing the way he did, and he was only as successful as he was through hard work and careful analysis. He clearly had an unfortunate talent
for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but when he spoke about the science of batting you were aware of how thoroughly he thought about what he was attempting to do.
Let’s be clear, England would not have regained the Ashes in 2005 had it not been for him. Many members of the team contributed to the result, but Pietersen led the way by showing that Warne and McGrath were not invincible. At the time, the sight of someone in an England shirt hitting McGrath back over his head into the Lord’s pavilion for six, or repeatedly slog-sweeping Warne over
midwicket for six, was a revelation. Batsmen simply did not treat them with that sort of disdain. It showed an extraordinary ability to watch the ball and make contact with it, something his height and reach helped to make possible. With the fate of the series and the Ashes in the balance on the final afternoon of the series at The Oval, his bravura innings of 158 sealed the day for his adopted
country and cemented his status as superstar and saviour. To an extent, his later performances were attempts to repeat the heroism of that day. Certainly, he seemed determined to entertain first and think about the consequences later.
Nor would England have won the World Twenty20 in 2010 – their first global one-day trophy – without him. He was the player of the tournament and his destruction of Steyn and Morne Morkel in Bridgetown was a sight to behold. He also scored runs in the final against Australia. His assault on Steyn and Morkel in the Headingley Test two years later was even more astonishing, given that it was a Test match and he would have had to weigh the risks more carefully, not to mention that he was by then at odds with some of his team.
Steyn has probably never been treated quite so unceremoniously in a Test.It is also highly likely that England would not have recovered from 1–0 down in India later that year had he not destroyed India’s spinners on a pitch in Mumbai that was tailor-made for them. Several months earlier he had done something similar to Sri Lanka’s spinners in their backyard in Colombo. He was a man for a challenge and a man for a big occasion, and these were some of the biggest any batsman could encounter. Far from being afraid of a bowler’s reputation, he was stimulated by the challenges the best bowlers posed. His development of the switch-hit was a move designed to counter a spinner such as Murali. Others might have viewed it as a risk; he saw it as simply the logical
answer to the problem.
His overall figures – 8,181 Test runs at an average of 47.28 – were not exceptional, merely very good, but then if consistency was what you were after he was not your man. He specialised in match-winning innings and provided plenty over the years. Even so, he perhaps ought to have done better. By the end of 2008, he had scored 4,039 runs and 15 hundred in 45 Tests at an average of 50.48, so to only add another eight centuries after that an average of 44.53 during the remainder of his career represented underachievement. He was 28 years old by then and should have been entering his best years. The highs were still very high but they became less frequent and for that must be blamed the loss of the England captaincy and his frustration at not being able to spend more time at the
Indian Premier League; for both, he appeared to hold the England management
and the ECB responsible.