• Walking the talk

    Kevin Pietersen’s prolific return to the Dolphins proved that he still means business, writes JON CARDINELLI.

    Kevin Pietersen asks me to hold. He’s just landed at OR Tambo in Johannesburg, and is in the process of transferring to the Lost City for the Gary Player Invitational. As his phone is placed on a conveyor belt at airport security, I overhear him chatting to the staff. Eventually, the chatter dies down as he reclaims his belongings and picks up the phone.

    ‘Let’s do this now,’ he insists. ‘I’m about to board a helicopter. I’ll be on the golf course in an hour or two, and quite unreachable.’

    Such is the life of one of cricket’s biggest rock stars. Pietersen’s Twitter posts between late-October and mid-November confirm that he is more than deserving of the label. A shot of himself lounging on the balcony of a plush seaside hotel in Umhlanga. Multiple selfies taken from the inside of an airborne helicopter (a couple alongside former Proteas skipper Graeme Smith). En route to Leopard Creek Country Club. En route to Sun City. Hashtag Living the Dream.

    Pietersen laughs at the mention of his Twitter account, and at the suggestion that he’s become the sporting equivalent of a rock star. When the conversation turns to cricket, the reason for his celebrity and his return to South Africa, he adopts a more serious tone.

    Pietersen joined the Dolphins on a short-term contract earlier this season. He played five games during the league stage of the Ram Slam T20 Challenge, scoring 364 runs at an average of 121.33. Coach Lance Klusener described the knock against the Highveld Lions – in which Pietersen smashed 115 off 66 balls – as ‘one of the best T20 innings you will see this season’.

    Pietersen, however, won’t be drawn into talk about individual form. He prefers to focus on the four wins the Dolphins obtained during his five-game stint, and their log position (first) at the time of his departure in mid-November. In that sense, he is satisfied with what he achieved at the Durban-based franchise. Of course, there is another reason why the KwaZulu-Natal-born player will never forget the time he spent with the Dolphins.

    ‘Going back to Natal, my home, and serving as the overseas pro at the Dolphins… it was an emotional experience,’ Pietersen tells SA Cricket magazine. ‘That’s where it all started for me. Obviously there is more of an emotional attachment at the Dolphins than there is at Melbourne or at any other franchise for which I play. That is where I grew up. That is where Mum and Dad live.

    ‘I didn’t set myself any goals before that stint with the Dolphins,’ he adds. ‘I always try to ensure that my preparation is as good as it can possibly be. From there, I just take it as it comes. I back myself. Whether I’m out first ball or go on to score a hundred, I will live with what happens.’

    Pietersen’s dominant displays boosted the Dolphins to four wins in five matches. If that sojourn in Ram Slam kit proved anything, it’s that the 35-year-old still has what it takes to win matches. The majority of global cricket community is in agreement on this point. The England and Wales Cricket Board, however, refuses to acknowledge Pietersen’s form with a national recall.

    The last time Pietersen played for England was in the final Test of the 2014 Ashes series in Australia. He hasn’t played an ODI since September 2013, and hasn’t batted for his country in a T20I since February 2012.

    The England cricket community has attempted to move on; it has attempted to convince itself the national team is better off without Pietersen in the middle order. And yet, it would do well to remember what Pietersen has done for the side in the Test arena alone.

    Pietersen smashed 158 against Australia in the decisive match of the 2005 Ashes. He cracked a career-best 227 against the Aussies in Adelaide in 2010, and 202 against India at Lord’s in 2011. The 186 he scored against India in Mumbai in 2012 was subsequently described by Scyld Berry, a veteran writer and former editor of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack, as ‘the best ever innings by an England batsman in Asia’. When Pietersen has scored big, England have often gone on to win a series.

    If Pietersen is desperate to play international cricket again, he is reluctant to say so outright. ‘[The England snub] doesn’t bother me,’ he says. ‘I will continue to play the way I play, and what will be will be. If it [the recall] happens, it happens.’

    South African great Graeme Pollock says the decision to recall Pietersen should be a no-brainer.

    ‘Kevin can still make a big contribution, especially at limited-overs level. It was great to have him in South Africa, even if it was for a short period. I think all parties concerned benefitted from the move. I had an opportunity to chat with him when we both attended Clive Rice’s wake [Rice was involved with bringing Pietersen to England in the early 2000s], and he was telling me how much he enjoyed the experience and how much he is currently enjoying his cricket.

    ‘How can you not play a guy like that? When you have a player with that kind of talent, you need to use him. Simple as that. I look at the batsmen at England’s disposal, and apart from Joe Root, there isn’t much to shout about in the middle order. It’s time to shelve what’s happened in the past, and make use of Pietersen.’

    In a recent documentary about Pietersen’s life and career, former England footballer Jamie Redknapp was asked to comment on sporting geniuses who are difficult to manage off the pitch. ‘You have to treat the great players differently,’ he said. ‘In football, I wanted them in my team because I knew that they would win the game for us, and that’s the most important thing.’

    Former Australia leg-spinner Shane Warne is another who feels the England cricket authorities erred in their handling of Pietersen. ‘If you treat him well, if you make him feel important, you will get the best out of him,’ Warne said. ‘It was poor management from that [England] group, not getting the best out of him.’

    England will tour South Africa this summer without Pietersen in tow. It’s an omission that will compromise their drive for results.

    The Proteas won the most recent series between the two teams in England in 2012. However, nobody will have forgotten Pietersen’s 149 in the second Test in Leeds. Pietersen dispatched the South African bowlers to all corners and helped England secure a draw.

    Later that year, South Africa’s leading fast bowler Dale Steyn told SACricket magazine that Pietersen was simply unstoppable in that match. Steyn added he had never been dominated by an opposition batsman to such a degree. It was some statement, even if the Proteas did go on to win that series 2-0.

    Pietersen gives one the impression that he isn’t expecting a national recall. What we can expect is a series of influential knocks for his various T20 teams in leagues across the globe.

    He laughs down the phone after referring to himself as a ‘T20 crusader’. And yet, one need only observe his determined demeanour when he’s at the crease to know that he means business. He’s fighting to prove a point: that he’s still good enough to win matches. The runs and wins he scored with the Dolphins certainly strengthen his argument.

    I ask him if he feels these performances will change the status quo. Can he force himself back into contention for the World T20 or another Ashes series? Will he be back in the England mix for the 2019 World Cup, which will be staged in the United Kingdom? Where does he see himself in four years’ time?

    His answer suggests he’s already come to terms with the possibility that his international cricket days are over. That he still has the ability to excel on the big stage is plain for most to see. Those at the ECB, however, continue to turn a blind eye.

    ‘In 2019, I will be 39, and hopefully playing golf with a handicap of less than five,’ Pietersen says. ‘My little man [Dylan, currently five years old] will be old enough to play a few rounds with me. Otherwise, I will be doing pretty much what I’m doing now, cruising around the world.’

    This feature appears in the current issue of SACricket magazine, on sale NOW!

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