This piece emerged from a sense of wonder at just how someone can make a game of professional cricket look like a contest between a man (Pietersen) and a group of mismatched boys (the Somerset attack). The fact that this innings, predicated on the unadorned magnificence of genius, took place at a time when Pietersen was in the doghouse for sending text messages to South African players, simply added to its fascination.
With the exception of a fifty which Darren Lehmann once made at Taunton for Yorkshire, and parts of innings by Brian Lara for the West Indies, I think this was the most dominant piece of batting I’ve ever seen.
In his classic football supporter’s memoir Fever Pitch, published exactly twenty years ago, Nick Hornby wrote about a young player who first represented Arsenal in the mid-1980s named Gus Caesar. Gus Caesar had a promising start to his career at the club before finding that, at the highest level of the game below international football, he couldn’t cut it.
The point Hornby was making was about the way in which football has a series of levels, of standards. Local park, county league, regional semi-professional league, Vauxhall Conference (as it was then), Football League (as it was then). Now, at the head of everything – and it has been so for exactly the same twenty years – is the FA Premier League. At each and every level there will be players who have been outstanding at the level below, but who, when they step up to the next, are found wanting. At the very top – in the modern football world this is where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo reside – are the players who have never really been found wanting. They are the best of the best of the best.
Cricket is the same. At the level of cricket which I’ve played for the last couple of decades – friendly matches between village sides in England’s west country – a player capable of playing in the local premier league will stand out. Go and watch a match in that premier league and a player who represents the local minor county, or who once was among the best teenagers in the country, will stand out. Go and watch that minor county and a player who has played a lot in the County Championship will – if he is not a physical or psychological wreck (long cricket careers can do that to you) – stand out. Go and watch a County Championship match and someone who has played in 88 Test matches and scored 21 centuries, including some of the most brilliant innings played by an England batsman in the modern era, well, he will stand out.
So it was with Kevin Pietersen yesterday. So much has been written over the past few weeks, so many opinions offered, about Pietersen’s undeniably complex psychology, that it has been possible to forget, or at least briefly overlook, the fact that he is, when all has been said, a batsman of the purest genius.
And, if the eleven players in Somerset’s side, or his Surrey team-mates, or the thousand or so in the Taunton crowd, were in any danger of forgetting how good Pietersen was – and some would never before have seen evidence of his ability at first-hand – they will not do so for a very long time.
In many ways Pietersen’s century seemed understated, largely on account of the ease and assurance with which it was made. Such was the superiority of Pietersen over a useful Somerset attack that the need for extreme violence or self-preservation was obviated. It was bloodless.
In the early stages of his innings Pietersen occasionally played and missed at seaming deliveries from the eternally fiery Steven Kirby and his erstwhile England colleague Sajid Mahmood, but, when he had settled, it was simply a question of how often he felt like hitting the ball for four or six. Far worse players than Peter Trego – a locally-raised all-rounder having his best season with the ball – have played for England. Pietersen, when he desired an acceleration in the tempo of his side’s innings after lunch, danced down the pitch and flicked Trego to the leg-side boundary with the disdainful ease of a teenage elder brother humiliating a younger sibling. And then, when, as night follows day, Trego dropped the ball short, Pietersen pulled him for a flat six with the venom of a cornered snake.
The young Irish slow left-armer George Dockrell is a spin bowler of huge potential. Until yesterday he had found that his easy, grooved action and fine control of pace and spin were enough to see him through against some of the better batting sides in the first division of the Championship. Against Pietersen, receiving little help from the surface, he found that he could do nothing to prevent himself being milked for run after run, and then, when Pietersen felt it was necessary, he was hit out of the ground into the River Tone. Although he took three wickets, the lasting value of the day will be as a lesson in what players from another realm can do. One day – perhaps with a Test career behind him – he will look back on it with wryness and appreciation of its value.
Pietersen’s celebrations were also understated. There was none of the leaping and fist-pumping which always accompany his international milestones. Here there was simply a raised bat, first to the Surrey dressing room and then to all the ground’s corners. There were friendly conversations with Alfonso Thomas and, later in the day, with all the scoreboard damage done, with Mahmood. This, somewhat incongrously, was Pietersen attempting to play the part of the humble everyman. Something about his body language suggested contrition, and even, perhaps, a longing for forgiveness.
The saga of the last few weeks is far from over – it will probably take another twist within the hour – and the sense is that, for all Pietersen’s gifts, things will always happen around him which people will not understand or like.
Many words have been expended on Kevin Pietersen and many more will be used before his career is done.
You can say what you like about Kevin Pietersen.
Just don’t ever say he can’t bat.
Different Shades of Green, 29th August 2012