Brash, insecure and breathtaking Kevin Pietersen is one of the most exciting batsmen ever to play for England. His lust for boxoffice performance makes him a matchwinner in all forms of the game but his ability to put bums on seats is only matched by his ability to divide opinion.
Despite his overwhelming success for England, Pietersen has never won complete affection from either the English cricket board or public. Both are wary of Pietersen’s origins – he only left South Africa as a young man in protest against the quota-system – and of his habit of speaking his mind. Alongside that is a cocksure front, unappetising to many England fans, that betrays a more vulnerable personality.
His England career began in a low-key one-day series in Zimbabwe in 2004 before launching spectacularly soon after in South Africa. With the crowd in his former homeland baying for blood Pietersen produced three audacious centuries. Test cricket beckoned with the 2005 Ashes the following summer. Pietersen started with two half-centuries at Lord’s, then sealed the return of the urn after 17 years with a stroke-filled 158 at The Oval. The next five years were a whirl of runs and celebrity engagements, plus a ill-fated tilt at the England captaincy. He started with a century and victory against South Africa at The Oval in 2008, but it was as close as he ever got acceptance from the establishment. Early the following year he a fell-out with the coach, Peter Moores. Pietersen recommended, rather too publicly, that Moores be removed … and got his way, only to be summarily sacked as well. His relationship with the ECB never recovered and the flak probably affected Pietersen more than he cared to admit.
Alongside brushes with management – a feature in all the teams he has played for – injuries have interrupted him at key moments. His 2009 Ashes campaign was cut short by leg trouble that needed surgery and he left the 2011 World Cup with a hernia. Having always spoken out against the volume of international cricket, murmurs then began that Pietersen may quit the shorter-formats in order to protect his body and bolster his bank balance through playing Twenty20 franchise cricket. He is one of the IPL’s most expensive stars so it was not entirely unexpected when, in 2012, Pietersen announced his retirement from one-day international cricket. Though he wanted to play Twenty20 cricket for England, the ECB decided it could not let him cherry-pick formats.
It was another chapter of controversy in a career that has had many. Yet on the field, in whatever format, Pietersen can dominate any attack, and is the wicket England’s opponents crave the most. Though his commitment is forever questioned Pietersen has always stated his ambition for 10,000 Test runs, 30 centuries and a Test average of 50. If he gets there he will stand among England’s greats.