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The rise of Kevin Pietersen, cricket’s first rock star

by Paul Hayward 5 minute read

In his first home summer as an England cricketer Kevin Pietersen burst onto the scene in spectacular style, helping England to a historic Ashes win. He was subsequently named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2006. Paul Hayward profiled the showman.

When talent announces itself these days we rush to buy tickets for the burnout. This modern scepticism attached itself to Kevin Pietersen long before his bludgeoning and decisive innings of 158 on the final day of the Ashes. The genre for Pietersen’s rise as cricketer and celebrity is one known to David Beckham, Jenson Button of Formula 1 and the self-basting Gavin Henson, Welsh rugby’s icon for the iPod generation.

With all these ubiquitous idols we observe the billboard competing with the scoreboard. It’s a truism of modern sport that many young athletes have the party before they have fully done the work. In fact, there are those who worry that sport now exists as a fame academy – a factory for the making of deals – with the game itself an incidental part of the manufacturing process.

Pietersen certainly did the work at The Oval, and he sure as hell had the party afterwards. But when Pietersen stopped the victory bus to dive into Starbucks to relieve himself, cynics expected him to come out clutching a deal establishing him as the new face of the caramel macchiato.

He wasted no time affirming his status as cricket’s first rock star. “Get your hair cut, Pietersen!” one MCC member barked as Michael Vaughan’s men finally made it back to the Long Room after a long day of handshakes, hangovers and grins. The heckler was expressing the prejudices of those who regarded the lurching hero with suspicion.

The talent is the thing. Always the talent. If the gift is authentic it’s easier to ignore the peripheral ringing of tills and vacuous celebrity chatter. On that front, Pietersen struck 473 runs in five Tests against Australia. This, after “KP” – as in the nuts – had recorded an average in 23 one-day internationals of 73.09. These are the figures of a resoundingly good cricketer. The ICC anointed him both Emerging Player and One-Day Player of the Year. His belligerent and fearless innings at The Oval lit the imagination’s touchpaper way beyond cricket.

His team-mate Ashley Giles observed: “It was real grandchildren stuff. Gather round and I’ll tell you about that innings I played with Pietersen, with the white stripes and the earrings.’” In the ensuing tide of English euphoria it was swiftly forgotten that KP had been dropped three times, most calamitously by Shane Warne, his Hampshire colleague and friend. That simple error turned Pietersen into a household name and millionaire. Sport’s soundtrack is the music of chance.

The 158 may be a landmark Pietersen will never surpass. “Yes, I do think about that sometimes,” he says. “But nothing I did that day was more important than us winning the Ashes. It was all about us winning the Ashes.”

Though he might fail one of the government’s citizenship quizzes, Kevin Peter Pietersen, born in Pietermaritzburg on June 27, 1980, has worked hard to establish himself as a John Bull Englishman – ever since he walked out, aged 19, on his native South Africa to play for Nottinghamshire, citing the injustice of a quota system that was hampering his progress with KwaZulu-Natal. Summoned to meet Dr Ali Bacher, then head of the United Cricket Board, Pietersen restated his belief that quotas were the enemy of merit. “He tried to change my mind,” Pietersen said. And failed. Thus he acquired the twin roles of crusader and opportunist, according to which ethical continent you happened to be standing on.

In South Africa, the unforgiving accuse him of fleeing to the UK under a mother of convenience. Mrs Pietersen is English. An equally persistent whisper is that over-confidence made him a pariah among his new county colleagues. Not so, he says: “I was treading water. I left Nottinghamshire for cricketing reasons. I needed to get to Hampshire to improve my game.” Under the psychological tutelage of Warne, that Mephistopheles of spin, he convinced the England selectors that he could transfer to the Test arena the instinctive athletic brilliance of his one-day cricket. His elevation at the expense of Graham Thorpe was, of course, a seminal example of ambivalence and age being usurped by youth and eagerness.

Excitability might seem a more apt word, because Pietersen’s six dropped catches in the series put gunpowder in the muskets of his critics, who detected a dilettante streak. Geoff Boycott received no thanks from Camp KP for reminding the new hero that greatness is achieved over years, not hours, and that frivolity has destroyed many promising careers.

Boycott, and others, will cite the skunk hairdo, the £50,000 earrings, the Three Lions tattoo, the dates with Caprice and a former Big Brother contestant, and the Los Angeles celebrity party to which Pietersen gained access with help from the dissolute actor Mickey Rourke. There he was romantically linked with Paris Hilton – an heiress, incidentally, not somewhere nice to stay in France.

The game has never seen anything like this. Pietersen is surely the first man in flannels who chose to be famous – who set out to be world-renowned – just as Beckham and Henson have in their chosen fields. So now we stand back to find out whether he will be remembered as the cricketer who ate himself or a legend of the willow. Take your eyes off him if you can.

Wisden was right to warn that Pietersen’s career would be dogged by controversy, but also that he was a truly great batsman in the making. When his Test career ended in an avalanche of headlines in 2014, he had played in 104 matches, scoring 8,181 runs at 61.72 with 23 hundreds, many of them memorable.

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