Wednesday 5 February 2014

Elegy For KP

Last year a writer I liked very much died. Jonathan Rendall published three books, one of which, Twelve Grand, is among my favourites by any author. He was a boozy, melancholic soul with a low-lit style and his obituaries didn't hold back on his dissolute, sometimes chaotic life. His writing was admired by Tom Stoppard and he won a Somerset Maugham prize but almost every piece on him noted his 'wasted talent', partly because he had died so painfully young. Well he didn't seem to have wasted it to me.

It's the nature of talent, when it manifests itself as apparently effortless brilliance, for it to appear both ephemeral and carelessly used by the characters who possess it. Yet the life is inseparable from the art, indeed the art is art because it is informed by the life. Jonathan Rendall couldn't have written the way he did without being the person that he was, and it's analogous that Kevin Pietersen could not bat in the way that he does without being the man that he is. The talent might appear different because those of us with lesser ability imagine ourselves guarding it jealously, rationing it out, tending it like a secret garden.

In 2004 I had become distant from the game. I'd lived in Australia for a while, hadn't played much, just about kept up with it in the papers. It had receded in my interior life. I was in my lounge one morning in the winter, the sun was out, I was struggling to write something or other and I realised that England were about to play South Africa. The area had cable and I had a bit of money, and before I really thought about it, I was on the phone getting Sky Sports turned on. In the couple of hours that it took, I realised that I felt more excited and happy than for a while. The game was back. I didn't know why, but I could feel it.

That was the series when Pietersen played his three extraordinary one-day innings, centuries struck at an emotional pitch as true as a tuning fork. At the time, and right through until the following summer, he was talked about as a one-day player with a technique too iconoclastic for Tests but I knew with a rare certainty that it wasn't true. He hit 92 in a game at Bristol and the wave he was making became irresistible. The story was that he was picked over Graham Thorpe, but really the choice was between Thorpe and Bell. After Bristol, Pietersen was playing either way.

Lord's was extraordinary. England were hammered but on the first morning the bowlers roughed Australia up and each time Pietersen batted he murdered Shane Warne. It was obvious from the way he walked out how much he wanted it.

From that game on, I was more invested in his batting than in anyone else's. Something was happening, not just to England, but to the way the game was played. There were some batsmen more skilled and better than Pietersen in that phase, but he had this innate imagination and feel. His game was an act of creativity and it's no exaggeration to say that he broadened the horizons of batsmanship.

He wasn't playing in isolation of course. The game was changing - he arrived, essentially, at the same time as T20 - and Virender Sehwag was pushing at the limits too, along with Chris Gayle and Adam Gilchrist and then lots of others. There was a kind of kinship between them. They were not formal heroes like Tendulkar or Dravid or Ponting, and their effect on the future would be different.

But KP was English, or at least he was playing for England, and the English psyche, deeply conservative, deeply repressed, is a challenging place for the non-conformist. It was doomed from the start and I knew it. In a way, it's amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

It's fair to say he was part of the reason for starting this blog. Once he had commanded the imagination, it was hard to resist writing about him, because in working out what he was doing, I was often working out what I felt I knew about cricket, or what it meant to me.

When a player like Pietersen or a writer like Jonathan Rendall comes along, it's easy to develop a relationship with their work that leads you to think that you know more about them than you do. All you really know is that their talent speaks to you in some way.

Twelve Grand seems like an effortless book, and yet Rendall worked so hard on it he was briefly hospitalised. As Kevin Mitchell wrote about him, his love affair with writing 'ebbed away' after that.  Pietersen trained and practiced harder than anyone: the imagination demanded it. Nothing good can be effortless at that level.

I've found it quite hard to care about the arguments over who's done what and what went wrong that have raged today. Four men sat in a room and brought things to an end, and I think in years to come it will be a burden on them, maybe not publicly but when they have to be alone and remember it. If Pietersen hadn't been reintegrated, then we would not have had Mumbai, perhaps his greatest innings and one of the best of the modern era. So what will we not have now?

Overwhelming talent wants us to think it's wasted because, along with being apparently effortless, it seems somehow endless, inexhaustible. It works on the imagination. Pietersen's career will never be seen as complete, and he will have to live with hearing about it. His talent has not been wasted though. It's better to write three good books and leave 'em wanting more. Pietersen's legacy is not one of numbers, but what his batting has meant to those who have watched it.

For a while now I've wondered if he'll be remembered as a great player or a player of great innings. It doesn't matter. He will be remembered. He will live. 


Paddy Briggs said...

Marvellous piece. Exactly the right view to take on sport and especially cricket. And what fools the ECB have been not to find a way to keep KP.

Karen Roy said...

Top quality. Would have graced any broadsheet today in place of the cliche-ridden wine-soaked apologists for the ECB like atherton, Agnew and pringle.

Ozsportsdude said...

Its an 'only in England' thing too, you don't think Warne was a complete jerk, particularly in the Ponting Captaincy years, but Aussies buck up and respect talent, the English form a mini-upper class and get rid of the nouvaue riche talent soaked genius because he wasn't a gentleman

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed this. I was 14 when KP made his test debut, I had fallen hard for cricket the summer before but the '05 Ashes created an obsession for me. I have been to see an England test at least once a year since 2006 and every time England were batting (at Lords or the Oval, my main haunts) an audible buzz went around the ground when KP walked to the crease and there was a definite sigh of disappointment when he was dismissed. His innings at Headingley against the all conquering South Africans is the finest I have ever seen.

His sacking and the spineless press release that accompanied it that fills me with real sadness as the ever present and most exciting talent in my team is now gone. I feel sure that he must have made a lot of mistakes and unnecessarily riled a large number of individuals, but I refuse to believe that KP's ego is that much larger than the likes of Broad and Swann in the manner which the mainstream hacks present.

The Australians must be laughing themselves silly having forced English cricket to eat itself... Again.

I also feel compelled to seek out a J Rendall book, of whom I confess I have never heard, after reading this.

Helen Devries said...

Thank you for the introduction to Mr.Rendall's work.

All I can say on KP is that, having French neighbours over to watch that unknown and derided game 'cricket' they were entranced by his ability.

How depressing to see monochrome conformist upper class Britain in action yet again.

alanmcl said...

Great article. I think they're mad to get rid of him.

England only had three or four world class players - Cook, KP, Swann, and arguably Anderson. Why would you go and sack one of them right after another has retired? It's crazy.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant article. Thanks.

However, I take issue with this...

and the English psyche, deeply conservative, deeply repressed, is a challenging place for the non-conformist. It was doomed from the start and I knew it.

In a sporting context yes, but not in general terms. I'd argue quite the oppostie when it comes to creativity and original thinking in the arts, sciences and life in general we're a pretty free wheeling bunch - maybe not the cricketing etablishment though...which is probably the point. I'll be quiet now.

zephirine said...

Beautiful piece of writing, thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

sadly though he's looked far from effortless over the past 3 series - his vain attempts to hit himself back into form look forced and uncomfortable. He has no plan B, and plan A hasn't been working for far too long.

Unknown said...

Excellent. KP certainly deserved better than this.

Tim Newman said...

Excellent piece as usual, OB.

Assad said...

that is one hell of a writeup..bravo.

Tom Vowler said...

I share your sense of timing, my own reinvigoration with the game occurring around then, following years/decades of timidity and intransigence that there was no other way to play. In that first Test of 05, when KP obliterated a good-length ball by McGrath, almost cleaning up one of the world's best bowlers, with such disdain, a mark was drawn in the sand, of how things could and would be. My own English reserve suggests I'd hate to share a pint with KP, but I regard him the single catalyst, a harbinger and symbol of all that was to come in that glorious summer, which makes his jettisoning all the more unfathomable. We/he have also been denied a proper au revoir/celebration worthy of his legacy, swept under the carpet as he's been.

InsightfulPerception said...

Sir you cannot compare KP to Gayle or Sehwag. They are hitters of the ball who are lucky that bygone bowlers such as Marshall or Hadlee aren't around. KP is capable of handling any bowler from any time period. His hitting is a by product of prodigious talent, like Viv's leg side play or Miandad's, well everything. It's possible to analyze and reproduce both Miandad's and Viv's strokes but I'm quite sure KP's and Carl Hooper's are unique! Some people are gifted god like abilities.

elegantfowl said...

An unusually good piece, this. There is a word for the effortless brilliance acquired through hard work and a splash of genius: sprezzatura. What I find particularly interesting about the KP saga is the way in which the Saffers manipulated his first exile so beautifully ...

Alan Earl said...

I have written a couple of small comment in the Daily Mail and this mirrors my thoughts entirely, only put far better than I ever could. Thank you.
I am now close to 70, and I feel that my lifelong passion with the game of cricket has not been wasted, as I have had the privilege to watch many of this great man's innings. Who will replace his like?

InsightfulPerception said...

I think something that is missed about KP is that aside from the talent, he had to be quite analytical. No one reproduces such strokes on talent alone. His shots were frequently unique and when assessed, had to have been thought out beforehand. They were placed into positions and also over fielders.His bat was federesqe during the shot management. It would turn or follow through as the shot demanded to execute his intention. Most impressively, for me, his comprehension about getting to the pitch of the ball at all costs. He didn't waft the bat as other hitters but calculated ball landing to coincide with his foot position. To me there lies his greatness.

nicholaspsh said...

I'm 70, and have written email after email to the Guardian, Cricinfo etc expressing my irritation (no, ANGER) at the way the views of the cricket-watching public have been ignored by the "powers that be". Pietersen may or may not be something of a shit, but he's definitely been treated in an appalling way and we (who MATTER) are being deprived.
Apropos, I took a look at the ECB accounts. Therein is a reference to a "standing disciplinary committee". Googling that led me to (link which is of interest.

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