Story by Hannes Bez 22/06/05
Flash in the pan.....One hit wonder! Kevin Pietersen has heard it all, and then some. Yet each successive ODI masterpiece he crafts with that fearsome willow forces his doubters to eat their words... or their hats, or feet, or whatever else suits the moment.
The fact is, Kevin Pietersen is the real deal. Like him or hate him, he puts his money where his mouth is, and he comes up with the goods when the chips are down. Whether you buy the cliches or not, with a weight of runs scored in the County Championship over the last few years and a not-so-insignificant ODI average of 162, Pietersen is proving that he's not all mouth and hair: he's powerful, he's precise, and he backs himself all the way. When his eye is in, his broad bat misses nothing - he brutalises bowling more efficiently than even the Great Brutaliser himself, the Australian opener Matthew Hayden.
Pietersen's case for inclusion in England's Test team is a heated topic of debate, both Down Under and in Britain. But in South Africa, cricket lovers are following his progress almost as closely. Pietersen's claims of quota victimization are well-documented, and is often flaunted as his main reason for packing it up and throwing his lot in with the Poms. His cold reception in South Africa during England's recent tour prompted him to reiterate the tired story of how Kwazulu-Natal would not take a gamble on him, choosing instead to turn its back on him in favour of other, lesser talents. Using his mother's British heritage as his ticket to English citizenship, Pietersen chose to follow Clive Rice's advice and relocate in the rainy isles.
The question is, how valid are Pietersen's claims? On the surface, the UCBSA and Kwazulu-Natal appear to be easy and legitimate scapegoats. Quotas have been the bane of South African cricket since the unification of the various boards in the early nineties. Proponents argue that the face of the new South Africa is not rich and white, but ethnically and economically mixed - a truly representative South African team would mirror this reality, and methods that speed up this process are welcome. The other side claims that cricket is a professional sport with winning as its main focus, and teams that win are chosen on merit, not on the colour of the players' skins. Thus the development debate rages on, and, like it or not, Pietersen has placed himself firmly in the middle of that debate by siding with his mentor, Clive Rice, a strong advocate of the latter side. Pietersen has mentioned his exclusion from the South African Schools team and Kwazulu-Natal's failure to promote him to a permanent position in the senior side's middle order as reasons for his emigration. One would surmise that the province's persistence with players like Ahmed and Hashim Amla played into this equation - while Hashim has gone on to prove his worth, Ahmed continues to struggle at provincial level even today.
So, then, if we were to believe Kevin's recent outbursts and the general press hype, neither Kwazulu-Natal nor South Africa had any real interest in him as a player, and his frustration with his stagnation in their ranks got the best of him. In this way, the UCBSA threw away a player of extraordinary potential and ability.
We could believe this, of course. It all seems very plausible. Unfortunately, it's a lie.
The simple facts are these:
A) Pietersen did not set the world alight as a junior batsman at Kwazulu-Natal, nor as a bowler (he was, after all, originally included as a lower-order all-rounder).
B) Despite the fact that he had not performed, Pietersen's provincial coach still believed in his abilities, and was sad to see him go.
C) Pietersen's original contract with Nottinghamshire was in no way designed to preclude the possibility of his representing South Africa on the world stage in the future, as he acknowledged himself.
Pietersen debuted for the Natal 'B' side in 1997/98. By the end of the 1999/2000 season, he had scored 222 runs from 13 innings (average of 20.18) and taken 20 wickets at an average of 30.8 runs per wicket. Of these, only three matches were for the 'A' side. To be fair, Pietersen never batted higher than eight down for the senior side, but then again, he was only 20 by the time he signed for Nottinghamshire in late 2000, and he was playing in a strong Kwazulu-Natal team, one that would win the Supersport Series trophy the following season. While solid, Pietersen was never anything spectacular, not for the 'A' side, and, more importantly, not for the 'B' side, for whom he scored only one half-century. There was nothing to suggest that Pietersen was any better than the rest of the up-and-coming bunch, besides any potential that the coaches could spot in the nets.
And spot it they did. In a Cricinfo report by Ken Borland, Kwazulu-Natal's coach at the time, Phil Russell, is quoted as stating that he was "disappointed to lose a player of Kevin's potential." In fact, it turns out that Pietersen only abandoned hope of playing for Natal when he discovered his contract with Nottinghamshire was dependent on his not being qualified as an overseas player, which would negate his chances of playing for the South African province. Pietersen described this predicament as "chaotic", but eventually decided that the '"guarantee of three years of high-quality cricket" with Nottinghamshire was "a career opportunity too good to turn down."
Most crucially, Pietersen also made sure to point out that he was "not turning his back on South African cricket ." This indicates that, at the time, the move to Nottinghamshire was truly nothing more than a smart career move, a way to make money and build a cricketing resume in a more stable environment than the boiling cauldron that is South African domestic cricket. There seemed to be no grudge on Pietersen's part. The reality is, he could not hold one. A one-year contract extension and the fact that he played in their last three matches meant that he was not being shunned by his province. His decision to look for greener pastures at Nottinghamshire suggests that he knew his performances had not secured his future at Natal. Of course, Pietersen continued to back himself, but this is a strength in his game, and to be expected of the man.
In retrospect, then, Pietersen's vitriol smacks of bombastic bravado rather than truth. Sure, he has probably been affected by the quota system, just like every other professional sportsman (and woman) in South Africa. Unfortunately, that is a reality of the post-Apartheid era. The evidence suggests, though, that it is not the quota system that stood in Kevin's way. In fact, it would appear that the only thing standing in Kevin Pietersen's way was Kevin Pietersen.
Pietersen will most likely make the England Test squad at some point during the Ashes, and I am predicting a long and fruitful career for him. He may even emulate Andrew Straussí phenomenal first year in international colours. However, he should probably never expect a warm welcome back at Sahara Kingsmead. Let's hope that three-lion tattoo he'll be sporting soon is enough solace to his troubled mind.