Talent unlimited with a penchant for trouble
Controversial South Africa-born England middle-order batsman Kevin Pietersen divides opinion as readily as he destroys the world's best attacks. Pietersen was sacked as England captain for airing his concerns about the coach and dropped last August for sending text messages about former skipper Andrew Strauss to the opposing South African side.
Last Wednesday, he announced his reconciliation with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) which could pave his way back to the national side soon. In the meantime he must undergo what ECB chairman Giles Clarke called a "re-integration process" amid reports that not all his team mates hold him in the highest esteem.
But whatever your opinion of the 32-year-old South African-born batsman, Pietersen's talent is undeniable. And on the evidence of defending champions' England's limp departure from the Twenty20 World Cup, his return cannot come soon enough.
Pietersen's ability to fall out with, or alienate, members of several of the teams he has played for lends ammunition to those who argue England should not accommodate someone who does his own thing in what is ultimately a team sport. His own thing, however, is what makes him the player he is and what makes spectators love his style and prompt opposition players and coaches to marvel at his ability. It was Pietersen who pioneered the "switch-hit," in 2008, twice thumping New Zealand's Scott Styris over the ropes after changing to a left-hander's stance as the bowler approached. In his most recent international appearance he scored a stunning 149 against South Africa at Headingley and drew lavish praise from opposition coach Allan Donald.
"The knock that I've seen today reminds me of bowling to Brian Lara, a bit of a genius," Donald said. "I'm really not sure what more we could have done. You have to take your hat off to him because he played seriously well."
That innings took him past 7,000 Test runs at an average a fraction under 50 and his 21 centuries place him level with Strauss, one three-figure score away from equalling the national record held by Geoffrey Boycott, Colin Cowdrey and Walter Hammond. He sits sixth in England's one-day international all-time list, just behind Strauss, and only Marcus Trescothick has bettered his haul of nine hundreds. In Twenty20 international cricket he is the only England player to have topped 1,000 runs and his strike rate of 141.51 is better than any of the other 47 players to have represented his country.
He was the player of the tournament when England won the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies two years ago, their first success in a global event, which makes his absence from the current tournament all the more frustrating for his supporters and pleasing for the opposition. Pietersen is a flair player and does things on instinct. "The way I play is instinct-oriented," he said in 2009. "I like to do things spontaneously."
But the instinct that has served him so well on the field has cost him dear off it with those text messages just the latest example of a penchant to act before he has fully engaged his brain. Witness his decision earlier this year to announce he was quitting one-day international cricket.
The rationale was that he found the schedule too taxing but he lost sympathy when he revealed he also wanted to play a full season of cricket in the lucrative Indian Premier League. It also ignored the fact that, given the terms of his England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) central contract, he would no longer be considered for the Twenty20 World Cup as England's policy is not to let players pick and choose between limited overs formats.
Now he has committed to play in all three formats of the game for England until 2015, even though a lot can happen in the mind of Kevin Pietersen during that time. Although his detractors believe the texts to players from the country of his birth confirm he is a flag-of-convenience cricketer, the Pietersen story is far more complex.
Born in Natal in 1980 to a South African father and a mother from Kent, Pietersen has displayed a single-minded self-confidence since making his first-class debut at the age of 17. He started out as an off-spin bowler and took four wickets against Nasser Hussain's 1999-2000 England team.
Pietersen showed promise at that stage of his career but, frustrated by his slow progress and encouraged by former South Africa captain Clive Rice, he threw in his lot with English county side Nottinghamshire and in 2001 averaged almost 60 with the bat in his first season. He subsequently blamed racial quotas for his failure to make progress at Natal and for the first, but not the last time, he managed to leave a sour taste in the mouths of those he had once played alongside.
That scenario was repeated at Nottinghamshire where he fell out so badly with the coach and captain that the latter was reported to have thrown Pietersen's kit off the dressing room balcony. The extreme reactions he provokes suggested someone who has a tendency to act first and consider the consequences later, illustrated during a turbulent period as England captain in 2008-09.
Taking over from Michael Vaughan, he led the side to victory in his first Test as captain against South Africa and was in charge when the team returned to India after the armed attacks on Mumbai, a decision that earned him kudos in India. But all the while he was said to have felt England coach Peter Moores was not up to the job and, when he aired his views to the England hierarchy, they decided that both Moores and Pietersen had to go.
Now he is on the brink of a return to the side, something that appears to have been made easier by the retirement of Strauss as captain. Whether those left in the dressing room will forgive him for what they perceive to have been his role in the popular Strauss's departure remains to be seen.