The year is 1999, and it is the first year of Channel 4 showing test match cricket to the masses. There is a feeling of a new dawn with debuts to Chris Read behind the stumps and Aftab Habib. In reality, the ECB appear to be picking various county cricket journey men. It was a mess. And being a cricket fan in England – many of us not by choice but by birth right – was shite.
Six years later, the ECB decided to make some tough decisions, with some backlash, by selecting Kevin Pietersen over Graham Thorpe. Pietersen single-handedly saved the last test match at The Oval to get us over the line; and entertained the crowds throughout the country.
His outrageous strokeplay (pioneering the flamingo and switch hit), vast accumulation of runs and occasional wicket endeared KP to the hearts of many. What is more, for us northerners, he seemed to offer something different to the Etonian demeanour English cricket has possessed for years. We adored Botham’s approach to the hierarchy, flirting with the boundaries of law, his hard hitting and wicket taking. We loved Freddie and his Pedalo antics, and we love KP standing up to the hierarchy and playing in a way that would make Boycott, Tavare, Brearley and Atherton open the textbook, merely for the pages to fall out around their feet. How people act outside of cricket, whatever they get up to in their own time, whoever they send texts to, whatever they may say to the media, how abrupt they may be, does not matter. We have seen the boring innings, sat through hours of a Saturday afternoon watching dot after dot after dot. But with all the names above, we dared to dream. We wanted to grab our Slazenger V100 and run to the park to try these shots, to hit the ball as far as Flintoff at Edgbaston, to switch hit like KP at Durham, to pull the ball as unorthodoxly as Botham. It’s been raining all week, we go to our day-to-day jobs in factories, eat brown bread and butter with every meal, and want to be inspired by something out of the ordinary. KP did that.
While cricket may be overlooked by many in this country, it is something to take heart in when we are doing well. We are the guardians of cricket – the laws of the game and spirit of cricket coming out of Lords wholly until moving to Dubai in 2005. We are still the team that pulls in crowds and the team others – specifically Australia – want to beat. The cricket playing nations to which the Empires blanket fell over still want one over on us. This is not ‘us against them’. Cricket provides those involved to go to some of the greatest regions of the world, but they still love beating the Three Lions. It is due this and the Etonian nature of the English selection that Prime Ministers, politicians, heads of industry, and general landed gentry take note. And one lad with a silly haircut from South Africa has polarised opinion. Cameron claimed “it’s better I stay out of this”, something that would never be mentioned with football. Like Botham and Flintoff before, we like to see winners. People who can grab victory out of the claws of defeat, despite being used to watching it the other way round. No one implodes like England. No one. But with Pietersen in the team, we had half a chance to pull off the impossible. Where is that going to come from now?
What would you rather have? Someone who plays those stupid shots but can take a game away from somebody? Or someone who sticks to the textbook? It is a travesty that Pietersen is held in much higher regard in India than here in England. He adorns billboards, appears on adverts and is greeted on and off the pitch by the fans. In England he will fade away into obscurity. That type of character does. It does not matter who he inspires; or how good he is. He does not fit in to the stereotypical cricketer. How long will the paying public be ignored. When will we get a decent man management process in place as opposed to saying these characters are beyond recovery; to leave them by the wayside.
The innings Pietersen played at The Oval was spellbound, and, albeit in 2005, he was still Englands top run scorer in Australia this winter. The innings in Mumbai even more special.
There is no turning back from this moment. We need KP more than KP needs us. Pietersen has averaged 42.26 in the IPL from 2009-2012 and is now absent from the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh. A life as a cricketing mercenary beckons. And who can fault him? Just please Kevin, do not go on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.