The Pietersen Narrative
Kevin Pietersen playing Division Two County Championship cricket is like Daniel Day-Lewis doing panto in Peterborough. But will the KP story get a big-budget Hollywood ending?
Photo by PA Images
The postmodern condition, said French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in a book of the same name, was characterised by the death of the "master narratives" – that is, a definitive loss of faith in the sense that history had a pattern, a direction, an endpoint.
Not that you'd have believed in the obsolescence of such overarching narratives had you been watching English cricket this last month, as Kevin Pietersen – a cricketer so postmodern that at times his shot-selection appears to have an element of PR about it – has bedded himself into the humdrum realities of Division Two of the County Championship. This is Daniel Day-Lewis doing panto in Peterborough.
The master narrative here is an inevitable, glorious, mythic return to England colours during this summer's Ashes. A bandwagon has been built and a flock of devoted thousands has jumped aboard. This despite it being an impossibility, according to both the man that picks the team and many of the (irreproachably neutral) press corps. It has since been made un-impossible by new ECB Chairman Colin Graves' statements that the door is, if not open, then no longer bolted shut. At this juncture it seems merely possible rather than probable, whatever the bookies' odds might say.
The narrative arc of the great mythical heroes requires setbacks and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This is what makes the surging vindication of late-career plot twist all the more dramatic. So far, Pietersen has taken care of his end of the bargain, turning his back on a lucrative IPL deal, swapping Chennai for Chelmsford, Delhi for Derby, and Nagpur for Northampton. As with Day-Lewis in his hypothetical purgatory in Peterborough, you can imagine a weary KP on this reluctant schlep around the Shires continually asking his reflection: "What's my motivation? What's my motivation?" For all that Pietersen loves to remind us that he loves playing for England – a love inked into his skin, yet perhaps a bond that's only skin-deep for this most thin-skinned of men – the answer is almost certainly the immortality conferred by membership of Test cricket's 10,000-run club, which, as far as England is concerned, amounts to a convergence of interests.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Utopia of an England return is no linear narrative. It requires a fortunate combination of elements, most of which are beyond his control. Scoring 1,000 first-class runs by the end of May will not be enough (although being the architect of some of the greatest innings in Test history is certainly credit in the bank). First, he needs the failure of England's top-order batsmen to create a vacancy – Schadenfreude by KP would make a pungent cologne – and may even need further changes at the ECB: any or all of (in decreasing order of likelihood) National Selector James Whitaker, coach Peter Moores, and the man he described as "Ned Flanders", skipper Alastair Cook.
How did the narrative become so badly derailed for England's leading international run scorer? It's tempting to visit his Chelsea mansion, sit down with his popstar wife while he zips back from the Oval in his Porsche, and pop that obvious question: where did it all go wrong?
Beneath the fluctuating details, the narrative is always one of fitting in: him with us; them around him; him amongst them.
For many, he first appeared on the radar in the 2005 Ashes with his 'skunk' hairdo and, they would argue, an unholy stink has followed him ever since. Before, in fact: since he arrived here to make a career, determined to right the perceived wrongs of South Africa's quota system (first trope of the mythic narrative). As has been well documented, there were ructions at Cannock CC over unpaid bar shifts; at Notts, a kitbag was tossed unceremoniously from the Trent Bridge balcony; he wasn't waved off when he left Hampshire. No smoke without fire, they say.
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He flourished under the leadership of Michael Vaughan, an astute man-manager who saw through Pietersen's bravado and realised he was essentially a sensitive, insecure soul who needed to be repeatedly told how good he was. A flamboyant batsman and attacking cricketer, Vaughan was a kindred spirit, and became not so much a father-figure to KP as a surrogate mother: someone who wanted his players to succeed with all his heart and would overlook their imperfections rather than feel aggrieved that one of them needed a little more attention than the others. Unconditional love. Things were never so congenial again.
The first fissure in his relationship with Team England came while he himself was captain – an appointment as ludicrous as that of Flintoff before him, betraying the ECB's prep school mentality that the star had to be the skipper. Pietersen clashed with the abrasive coach, Peter Moores, and both men were sacked, replaced with the ascetic, dogmatic regime of Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss. And it was under the 'Andocracy', when England were rising to briefly become the world's number one Test team, that the fissure became a crack and a bristling KP started to feel himself increasingly at the margins of things – perhaps not "disengaged", but certainly not comfortable around certain figures in a dressing room in which he was tolerated, not loved.
Once the honeymoon glow of 2005 had worn off, it revealed not so much a culture clash as a collision of energetic levels. KP was the wide-eyed, souped-up exchange student who finds himself lodging with avuncular octogenarians in Tring. As skipper, everything was "awesome", "unbelievable", "incredible", with no higher register for the genuinely startling. He tried to get English cricket on Nemesis; we were happy on the log flume. And on top of that, he never really did self-deprecation – not even insincerely, the way a few in English cricket do it.
Thus, the precariously perched ego had much further to fall when the dressing-room barbs – the bullying or banter, depending on your point of view – started to pierce his flesh. England colleagues retweeting the KPGenius parody Twitter account really wasn't a great way to cultivate harmonious relations. Keeping it in-house is one thing, but conducting the peg-lowering of a preening ego in public was only going to end in a shitstorm in which everyone lost. What it did prove, beyond reasonable doubt, was that KP wasn't one of the lads, however much he might remind us of the "real good mates" he has in the England team. And where does the fault lie there: with KP or the Andocracy?
Getting to the bottom of all the cross-purpose and misapprehension will doubtless prove impossible – even the protagonists are likely to be in the dark, since we are so often strangers to ourselves, to our deepest desires and darker motives. And for many England supporters – those that don't have to sit in the cloying dressing-room atmosphere for several months a year – it really shouldn't matter. They just want another fix. Even a fly-on-the-wall documentary would probably yield more mystery than enlightenment. No master narratives, remember? The opacity of the dressing room was partially punctured by Andrew Strauss' injudicious assessment of KP, when he thought he was off air, as an "absolute cunt" – a word that, in most parts of Great Britain, lacks the ambiguity of its Afrikaner counterpart, doos (box, idiot, 'cunt'), infamously used by Pietersen to describe Strauss in a text to a South African opponent.
The whole sorry saga of Pietersen's gradually fraying relations, banishment, reintegration and sacking, puts one in mind of Schopenhauer's famous allegory of human sociality, or intimacy – the fable of the troop of porcupines in the cold, venturing just close enough to keep each other warm but not so close that they start to prick one another (yes, many in the media thought him prickly, while a few of his team-mates thought him a prick). Isn't that the case with the perpetually wronged KP – a pathological pushing-away because they don't love him enough, or not in the right way, and yet a compulsive drawing-near because, like all humans, he requires the nourishment of others' admiration? As Vaughan understood, runs are only the means through which KP attains his real goal: adulation. Maybe we're all like this: a startlingly simple palette of needs.
And that's the Pietersen Narrative: how to fit in to the team environment? How, when you're not just the flesh-and-blood Kevin Pietersen, but "KP", with all the baggage and layers of meaning – a persona as much as a person, even when apparently 'being himself' in the England dressing room, a private arena in which you still have to project strength, where you still have to perform?
Surrey's pre-season media day was in large part dominated by players falling over themselves to tell the bulging press pack how swell KP was in the rooms, how he'd slotted into bantering with the lads (all of which seemed so alien and such an ordeal during the encircling pettiness and resentments and preening of the England years). Of course, there's something of a different pecking order at the Oval, where he can have his genius pow-wows with Kumar Sangakkara while absorbing the awestruck veneration of Harinath, Ansari, Burns et al. He knows where he stands, but he doesn't really want to be there, in the nicest possible sense.
Former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell speaks of the need for public figures to "be the weather", and only KP could still do that for English cricket while playing at Oxford University for Surrey. And yet – at the very same time as his professional ambitions are chased over the horizon by winds he cannot control, by the real weather, the real narrative – maybe Surrey will be the place where Pietersen becomes a more calm and philosophical soul, more secure in himself.
Or perhaps the whole thing will tip him into middle-aged bitterness. We just don't know – which makes the unfolding, unscripted narrative all the more intriguing. An Ashes return means the KP story gets its big-budget Hollywood ending. A season with Surrey, and it's a quirky Paul Thomas Anderson movie, an offbeat indie flick for which it might be tougher to get Daniel Day-Lewis – tall, dark, intense, imposing, angular, socially awkward – to play the lead. You never know.