COMMENT: Fraser Watson on the ECB's decision to axe Kevin Pietersen
IMPULSIVE, innovative, aggressive, disruptive.
Just some of the terms used to describe England’s all time leading run scorer Kevin Pietersen since he exploded onto the World stage in late 2004.
But irrespective of anyone’s opinion, few can deny that when the ECB officials informed the 33-year-old on Tuesday he was no longer required by his country, they brought the curtain down on one of the more colourful international cricket careers.
At this stage, their decision appears questionable. An official statement that read – “The time is right to rebuild not only the team but also the team ethic,” - hints that disciplinary issues, and not performance, were the catalyst for Pietersen’s downfall.
However, it’s a statement that leaves more questions than answers, and a host of supporters and former players have been entirely justified in calling for a full explanation.
There are many who feel he has become all too easy a scapegoat for England’s failings down under this winter. In truth, he was below par, a series of rash dismissals and an apparent refusal to accept that his domineering power, so long the scourge of international bowlers, was on the wane. But despite this, he finished the series as England’s top run scorer, and was hardly alone in his failings.
Indeed, if the emphasis really is now on rebuilding and ‘wiping the slate clean’ after the Ashes, then the position of captain Alastair Cook, seemingly influential in the decision to axe Pietersen, is borderline untenable.
Furthermore, the build up to the Twenty20 World Cup (which begins in Bangladesh next month), is not the time to discard your best performer and start ‘rebuilding.’
Regardless, Pietersen’s place in history will now, in keeping with his whole career, ferociously divide opinion.
His achievements in an England shirt cannot be ignored – 32 international centuries and more than 13,500 runs emphasise that.
At his best he was mercurial. Innovative and powerful, he would force sides to alter bowling and fielding plans to try and contain him. His ability to pick a ball from outside off stump and hammer it through the on-side would leave even the World’s best, the most notable example being Glenn McGrath during the 2005 and 2006/2007 Ashes series, looking helpless. Indeed, it was after that latter series, which Australia won 5-0, that Adam Gilchrist said that despite the home side’s dominance, there was always anxiety amongst the ranks until they had the wicket of Pietersen.
There was no doubting his self belief, and he was often perceived as arrogant and egotistical by critics. But it was thus that allowed him to play with the attacking and care free nature which made him box office material across the globe.
However, all too often, his flamboyance brought about his downfall. With Pietersen you always felt he was on the verge of a big innings – but by the same token, a soft dismissal never seemed far away.
Even in one of his most famous knocks, his 158 at the Oval in 2005 which saw England regain the Ashes for the first time 1987, it is easy to overlook the fact he was dropped on three occasions along the way.
His refusal to be contained for long periods would consistently see him throw his wicket away. A gritty century at Old Trafford in the summer, which went along way to saving the third Ashes test for England, was evidence he had the ability to play with patience. But his tendency to get out at crucial times, combined with the now tedious excuse of ‘it’s just the way I play’ – irked many.
Sadly, if there was one innings that epitomised Pietersen’s career, it came at Edgbaston in the third test of the England v South Africa series in 2008.
England trailed by 83 after the first innings, but in their second were 219-4, with Pietersen playing superbly on 94 not out off 135 balls. In commentary, Michael Atherton famously remarked that he had the game ‘in the palm of his hand’ – before Pietersen, in an attempt to bring up his century with a six, needlessly charged down the track to Paul Harris and was caught by AB De Villiers in the field. England subsequently lost the test match, and with it the series.
It was vintage ‘KP’ – a destructive yet entertaining innings, 13 boundaries, all ended prematurely with a needless dismissal.
It is such moments that will see him fall short of the legendary status you sense he craved.
Of course, opinions on his ability will be masked by the controversies that plagued him throughout his career – the ill fated England captaincy, the fallout with Andrew Strauss, and the ‘reintegration process’ to name but a few.
Therefore, it is easy to overlook his achievements with the bat but his country will miss him, and miss him badly.
An England great yes, but an all time great, no.