As the dust was settling on his controversial book Kevin Pietersen spoke to Phil Walker and got a bit more off his chest.
Lord’s, midday, October 23, 2013
The function room’s filling up. Tonight England’s Test squad will leave for Australia, but for now it’s back-slappings, toasts and teary farewells. They’ve won three Ashes on the bounce, this team, the last barely a month ago. Not for over a century has an England side won four.
Up in the media box, in that garrison of allies and foes, Kevin Pietersen reflects on his time. A month from now, at Brisbane, he will play his hundredth Test; on the eve of it he’ll receive a commemorative silver cap from his employers that will bear his name spelt wrong on the front.
This should be one of the good days, when it’s all sunshine and true bounce to come, when no one’s gone home, no one’s jumped ship and no one’s been sacked. When all is well in the state of Denmark.
Kevin Pietersen is still coming to terms with the death of a close friend. That night he’ll fly to South Africa to deliver a eulogy at the funeral before heading on to Australia. He sits up, looks out on a big slanting field and the grey skies above, and talks: distractedly but occasionally brilliantly, those mournful traces tugging on the wispy vowels.
He’s stepping back through his story, but we’re only here for the highs: just the highs. Such is Pietersen’s distrust of the media that the ground rules have been drawn up early. Just the best bits. Where should we start, then, Kev?
South Africa, Headingley, 2012
I press record. So, tell us about that innings. Big sigh. “There was lots of stuff going on around that time, with my employers. But it will all come out in my book. It will come out.”
Later that evening a plane leaves for Perth.
The Gabba, early afternoon, November 22, 2013
…Where a spell of sustained thuggishness from Mitchell Johnson reaffirms not just Australia’s Ashes credentials but the raw power of Test cricket to literally shake a place loose, where Johnson has had Jonathan Trott fending for primitive survival before crashing into his gloves from the last ball before lunch as terror takes hold of English minds…
This is from KP: The Autobiography, published in October 2014:
“How could Trotty, this calm, collected buddy of mine, play like that? Get hit like that? Get out like that? I was really worried.”
Pietersen will face the first ball after lunch. During the break he asks England’s spin-bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed to go with him to the nets down in the Gabba’s indoor school. He wets a tennis ball and instructs him to take his head off from half a pitch away. For the next 10 minutes Mushtaq tries to do just that.
“I needed him to try and destroy me. I said, what we just saw with Trotty looked ridiculously fast. Mushy looked at me as if I was mad, but he saw the method in it.”
The bell goes. Afternoon session. Pietersen walks out to bat. His hundredth Test.
“I had been petrified: if Trotty can get played like that there is no hope for me, because Trotty is normally so calm and cool… I said to myself, this is my game. This is not impossible, why am I so scared?”
It starts okay. He gets a couple away. Runs down the pitch after the second boundary and gives Johnson a few words.
“He looked at me, just stared at me, he didn’t say anything back. He kept staring and walked past. Shit. Shit. Shit. On so many occasions in the past Johnson has always hit back: shut up, KP, f**k off, shut up, big shot. This time he didn’t say anything, and immediately I knew he was different.”
Pietersen doesn’t last long, clipping Ryan Harris to mid-wicket while Johnson dominates his headspace. In the second innings, Johnson gets him caught in the deep top-edging a pull. “He knew the power of his own aggression,” Pietersen writes, believing that a number of the team were “physically scared” of a “weapon” they knew they had no answer to.
“That was Brisbane.”
Adelaide nets, mid-afternoon, December 4, 2013
The day before the second Test. It’s hot. Australia trained in the morning breeze, now it’s England’s turn. Conjecture about the team dominates the build-up as hacks looking for clues study the patterns of practice. I’m up on the balcony watching the session. Pietersen, who has made two centuries (158 and 227) in two Tests at Adelaide, nets first, batting for 20 minutes in high intensity. Afterwards, and for the next 90 minutes, he stays in his pads, standing centre stage, wide-legged and straight-backed, with a clear view of the four nets. Players drift in and out of action but Pietersen stays there throughout, intermittently applauding good shots and shouting praise. One hook shot by Stuart Broad gets a roar of approval. He seeks out some of the younger players for a word as they finish. He talks in depth to Michael Carberry after his own net.
If this is an act, it’s a good one.
The WACA, late afternoon, December 16, 2013
Loaded up on painkillers for his ageing knee, Pietersen passes 8,000 Test runs in the first innings before “slugging a half-tracker straight up in the air.” His words. “A bad out.” At the end of that day’s play, his captain Alastair Cook, “good man that he is”, insists that the team have a drink to celebrate the landmark. “What for?” retorts the England coach Andy Flower. England are already 2-0 down and by then, Pietersen writes, “everybody was in their own little hell.” Still, 8,000 Test runs is a lot of cricket. When glasses are raised, Flower is allegedly the only one not there.
Second innings. Some kind of rearguard, however embryonic, is in place. Fourth afternoon. Shadows are lengthening. The Fremantle Doctor drives in hard off the sea, into the batsman’s face. Nathan Lyon tosses it up. Long-on is in place. It’s not really there to hit but how many times has that been said? It’s rarely stopped him before.
“I think it’s that I’m stuck with a see ball, hit ball mentality. If I see a ball, I’m going to hit it.”
Some occasions are easier to stomach than others.
The Doctor stands it up on the wind, letting it hover there, and drops it fast and hard into the hands of an Australian. Inside the sticky press tent, where there’s more respect for Kevin Pietersen than he could ever conceive of, the well of goodwill has run a bit dry. Drained, I write: ‘Like Nigel Farage, and your gran, he’s not about to change his ways now.’
The Ashes are gone. Exit to recriminations.
Two months and one whitewash later, Kevin Pietersen is summoned to a hotel for a meeting with the ECB’s top brass. One of the three men sat in front of him is Alastair Cook, the “company man” who had nonetheless vouched for Pietersen during the dark days of 2012.
Pietersen is sacked. It’s a huge call, and it’s even more than that. It’s an inescapably moral one.
The legally-bound press release duly follows, the like of which we get when a cabinet minister’s been kicked out for some indiscretion or other and neither individual nor party wants their reputation trashed any further, and so begins the months-long phoney war. The toppling, if not the silencing, of the most divisive figure English cricket has known since Tony Greig is complete.
13,000 international runs, 104 Test matches, three Ashes wins, a World T20 title.
And one overriding emotion: what a waste.
One week in October a book would turn up to tear through the cloisters of English cricket. Kevin’s Version: The heartbreaking work of a closet introvert, inflected by genius, dogged by doubt, righteous and wronged, laying it on the line.
“I’ve fought more with myself in the head than I have fought with any bowler. I can destroy myself far more easily than any bowler. I can be destroyed before I hit a single ball.”
If you want a glimpse into the technical traumas that beset and obsess the best, then this is the book for you. If you want to be charmed by a two-page email from Rahul Dravid about playing spin bowling, go right out and buy it now. And if you like your egos inflated and your heroes disfigured, crack on.
Moreover, if you’re feeling miserable and you want to stay like it, and you don’t mind sullied memories and a nasty taste in the mouth, you could well do worse than shell out £20, because if even half of what’s written here is true, then something is rotten in the state of English cricket.
I speak to him the week it drops. He’s doing the hard yards. Pietersen has always been gracious with AOC, and we’ve been granted some time. I’m pretty sure it’s the first week we’ve shared interview time with Graham Norton.
How’s you, then? Tired?
I’m very well! Not too bad at all.
This time last year, pre-Ashes, we sat at Lord’s and talked about your greatest moments, but even then you spoke darkly about things “coming out in your book”. Were you already mentally preparing for this week, even a year ago?
Yeah! I absolutely knew 100 per cent what needed to be said.
Even a year ago?
Yeah, mate! I’ve been talking about this for a few years now. It’s not just that we lost. I’ve been talking about it for a few years, and it’s nothing new to me. It’s nothing new that Andy Flower has been reading about, and the players have been reading about and seeing. I’m also not a lone voice in this. There are a few players who have asked me to talk about this. Current players, and also some players who you’ve seen in the last few days who have backed me up in this whole situation, and there will be more!
You got on that plane to Australia with those dark thoughts already circulating. Could you have been mentally ready for the task in hand?
I honestly cannot even remember what I said to you in that interview. So… I dunno.
Now that we’re here, has this been a cathartic week? A necessary thing to do for your own peace of mind?
I’ve needed to do this. I’ve needed to tell the world. There have been too many character assassinations and continual leaks to certain journalists about me, and things that I’ve supposedly done, which are absolute garbage. So I’ve needed to be honest, I’ve needed to be open. With a book like this, with all the allegations in it, you don’t do it faint-heartedly, you don’t do it without any evidence, and so I took a lot of time going through this, and David Walsh and I are really proud of what we produced.
So you’ve been pleased with the response from lots of those from within the game?
Absolutely, yes. That for me has been amazing.
No, not surprising at all. People have said to me you have to tell the world what [Matt] Prior is like, you have to tell the world what’s been going in that dressing room, so I’m not surprised at all, no.
There’s a feeling of regret around all this. A lot of English cricket fans feel quite saddened by it.
Hey, so do I.
It’s lamentable that this is how we’re being urged to remember this group of players.
And you know what? It’s not the players’ fault, it’s Andy Flower’s fault.
So it all flows from him?
Of course it does. We achieved some amazing things. We did some brilliant things. But this wouldn’t have come to this if Andy Flower had managed this team properly and managed certain individuals a lot better than he did.
The image of the game suffers in all this. Its reputation is debated on national TV, along with your own reputation and those of the players you’ve played with. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m heartbroken, mate. But you know what? Sometimes, in order for things to happen, in order for things to change, you sometimes have to hit rock bottom. I’m incredibly proud that I’ve been able to unearth some of the stuff I’ve unearthed because it was a horrible place for some players, and a lot of players feel aggrieved with a lot of the stuff that they’ve had to put up with. And it was papering over a lot of cracks, and so for me it’s been very therapeutic to get it out there. And I hope that even if I don’t ever play for England again that English cricket will look at this, they’ll have a look at this, and they’ll start sorting things out.
“I don’t enjoy being ordinary.”
Kevin Pietersen is the kind of bloke who can compare himself to a honey badger without irony. With a straight face he can write, in relation to his teammates’ refusal to talk about the IPL, that “dented egos are hard to speak to”. He can “take or leave” Twitter. He can describe Peter Moores as a woodpecker and a triple espresso, Strauss as a vicar, Cook as a company man, Prior and Swann as bullies and Flower as all points between and still insist he’s not one for grudges.
Thing is, Pietersen’s never been ordinary. Craving acceptance while indulging his otherness is the book’s central neurosis. He writes: “Flower was always happy to think I was the odd one out. I was the one looking for special treatment. I was the one out of step.” And yet this book serves as persuasive evidence that he’s all of these things.
After that ugly sacking, the sense of him as a shimmering, doomed alien outsider transported to the old country to shake up the greybeards was overwhelming. The decision sent shudders through the game, and the public came out for him more than ever. As a cricket-lover the sacking was depressing. As a moralist, questionable. To the casual fan it was just a weirdly self-destructive balls-up. Lose, lose, lose.
“I was a cricketer stuck in a world of small-time politicians and bluff merchants, where nothing ever turned out to be what it looked like.”
Relentless. The final third of the book is essentially a series of clusterbombs fired at Andy Flower’s office, scattergun repetitions and ultra-short sentences serving to hand us an image of a man staggering through the streets in the early hours repeating the same mantras to himself about all the wrong turns his life has taken.
The effect is exhausting.
You say in the book that you wanted to put more cricket in there. So did the rest of us!
Yeah, and that’s the sad thing. People [journalists] have only referenced the bad stuff, and when people [the real ones] read this book they’ll still see a lot of cricket. They won’t see as much cricket as they probably would have wanted, but they will still see some fascinating battles that I talk about, some of my favourite shots, the times that I had, the way that I practised and trained, my insecurities… there is some good stuff, and I know there’s a lot of stuff going on at the moment but there really is some good stuff. I had a fantastic journey, mate. I had an amazing career and I loved… most of it. There were some bad times, and sometimes bad things get printed because a lot of people like to read about bad things more than the good stuff, so… it’s unfortunate. But I had such a great, great time.
All the more of a shame that we’re stuck here talking about this rather than what happened on the pitch. Is it lamentable for you personally that we’re here talking about the fallouts rather than the greatness?
You know, there’s a big difference between the media and the public. I did a Q&A last night with the public in Manchester, I spent two hours with the public, and the public did not ask me a single question on any of the nonsense. The public wanted to know about my great innings, my best cricket shots, my favourite grounds, who were the players I played with who I adored, the greatest players I played against. You guys are totally separated from the public. The public have got a little bit of interest, but the majority of the public only want to know about my cricket, and I think that’s what I’ll be remembered for. They’ll understand there was an agenda against me and I think it’s been a fantastic week to try to put a bit of perspective into people’s minds and counter all the nonsense that’s been said about me over the last few years. All I need to look at is the response I got in Manchester. The response from the public was outstanding.
The line that really jumped out at me was the one about imagining all you England boys playing some benefit match years down the line and wondering how it all came to this. It came over as a very true and a very sad line. And so I just ask you, why are we in this position? Why did you need to risk jeopardising your legacy in the hearts and minds of those who are part of English cricket? Why bother?
Because of the simple fact that I had a coach who didn’t like me; there was an ECB machine which worked against me for four, five, six years, continually assassinating my character on a regular basis; because I never had an opportunity to speak, because in a regime you can’t speak out – as soon as you say anything you have to write letters of apology and you’ve got to say you’re sorry and you’re not allowed to do anything; so this was my opportunity to tell the public: listen, this is what happened, okay? You make your minds up. I didn’t go looking for trouble, I don’t want to look for trouble, nobody does! I was a different personality, I could have been treated a little bit differently in terms of requests I made about [being rested from] warm-up games, and stuff. But unfortunately I had a machine working against me. I’ve given my side of the story; we’ll just see how it pans out. But you talk about legacy? People will remember my cricket, mate. That’s what will last.
We will indeed wait to see how it pans out. The ECB’s lawyers are mobilising. Matt Prior will have his say. Swann already has. Andy Flower may even come out from his cocoon of dignified silence (remember that?), though I doubt it, while rumours persist that others may yet emerge to back KP up.
Are you reconciled to not being a part of this team again?
Yeah. I’m fine with it.
In this sad playground of mud, slurs and semi-truths, that last line may be the hardest to believe of them all.