Andy Bull, courtesy of The Guardian, 7 October 2014, where the title is “Kevin Pietersen: the book, the chief, his knife, uncovered”
KP: The Autobiography is the most comprehensive act of bridge burning since William Holden parachuted into the River Kwai. But no one has come out of this well … … The main emotions I felt when I finished the thing were exactly those Pietersen says he experienced after his conversations with Flower. “Depressed. Disappointed. Annoyed. Patronised.”’
Photograph: Matthew Impey/Wired Photos/REX
Kevin Pietersen is a shallow, abrasive, man who loves to grandstand. We know this because Pietersen tells us exactly that in his autobiography, which, as all but the most attentive members of the cricket-loving public may be surprised to hear, is being published this week. It is not a book anyone is going to come to with an open mind. The lines are already drawn, and the splits in opinion between the two camps as deep as any in English cricket since Geoffrey Boycott, a “giant among pygmies” as his supporters called him, was fired from Yorkshire in 1983. What a desperately sad, squalid, and sorry business it all is.
There is a point in the book, after Pietersen’s reintegration into the team, in which he describes his conversations with Andy Flower as “like trying to make small talk with the headmaster”. You wonder if he realises what an apt image it is, because, judging by what Pietersen relates in these pages, the English players were acting like a bunch of children. Some of the team’s behaviour, the namecalling, the petty squabbles over dropped catches, the pitiful Twitter spats, would have been embarrassing if it had been going on in the ranks of a school first XI, and yet here it is being committed by Pietersen, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, and Graeme Swann, some of the finest players in England’s history.
The main emotions I felt when I finished the thing were exactly those Pietersen says he experienced after his conversations with Flower. “Depressed. Disappointed. Annoyed. Patronised.” And in that sense maybe it is all a brilliantly elaborate literary trick on the part of the ghostwriter, David Walsh, designed to make the reader feel they have something in common with Pietersen. He is such a freakish talent, and has such a fragile ego, that it is hard to relate to him. Walsh had to try and conjure a measure of empathy from somewhere, because it is one thing that the book, and by extension the subject himself, entirely lacks.
It’s not that Pietersen is blind to his own flaws, as the first line above suggests. The one thing nobody could accuse him of is spending insufficient time thinking about himself. In the first 100 or so pages, which provide a balanced and compelling account of the early and middle parts of his early career, Pietersen admits that he failed to appreciate how the players with families felt when, as captain, he asked them to go back to India after the terrorist attacks in 2008; that early on in his career he overplayed his Englishness, and that kissing his helmet and getting three lions tattooed on his arm were the wrong things to do; that he regrets disrespecting South Africa, and was misguided to “judge and nail” the quota system; that he was too stubborn to try hard to “be more positive towards Moores and Flower” when they started coaching England.
“The older I’ve got,” Pietersen says, “the more I’ve realised the mistakes I’ve made.” And here’s his problem. From the point at which he is sacked from the captaincy right up to the end of his international career, Pietersen makes one unequivocal admission of a mistake. That was when he was watching an IPL match on the TV in the dressing room while England were playing a Test against West Indies. The balance, the sense of mutual culpability in what went wrong, is lost, because the wounds are too raw, and the anger too strong. The later chapters are astonishingly, offensively, vitriolic. Broad is “not the sharpest tool in the box”, he thinks Swann is a “sad, sad, b@stard”, Cook is the “Ned Flanders” of cricket. An entire chapter is spent eviscerating Prior, “The Big Cheese”. By the end Pietersen and Walsh have abandoned any attempt at writing for the reader, and are, instead, just talking, shouting, directly at Flower:
“Talk to me about managing. Talk to me about coaching, I know you are a dreadful coach not by how many you have won but by how many you have lost. Bad times are when coaches prove themselves. In bad times you were the solution, not the problem. Your methods created an environment where people became terrified of failing. Every time we came off the field you behaved as if one of us had run over your dog. Your legacy became roadkill. You tell me what good came from that. You were applying too much pressure and we were suffocating in your hands.”
Everything, anything, good that Flower did – and you assume there must have been something, in between winning three Ashes series, the World T20, and managing the team in a period when it got to the top of the world rankings – is dismissed on the grounds that the team had so many players in form that even Pietersen’s “baby boy” could have been their coach.
Yet when you look at the list of complaints, you wonder whether, in time, Pietersen may come to re-evaluate his own role, just as he has done with all those controversies from earlier in his career. That he may one day realise that when Flower arranged a series of weekly one-on-one meetings between the two of them to “make sure we kept our relationship in check and that everything was OK”, he wasn’t just “ticking boxes, humouring me”; that when Flower told him that “when people were talking in team meetings I needed to look at them with interest in my face” the coach wasn’t just “looking to pick a fight”, but that he might have disapproved of Pietersen’s attitude. “People on the team would say we didn’t talk cricket enough,” he writes later on. “You know what? If you want to talk cricket, go and talk cricket with your coaches to improve your game; you don’t need to involve me in this.”
“Flower was happy to think that I was the odd one out. I was the one looking for special treatment,” Pietersen says. And then in the very next paragraph: “I was the odd one out because I had carried the weight of expectation since the first century I scored at the Oval.” He gets upset because Flower and Strauss refuse to take account of his “exceptional circumstances”. At one point Pietersen says that he felt “there was no team in I” never mind no I in team. Mosquitoes spend less time whining. He is a man who can take an anecdote about how he made his team-mates’ “eyes glaze over” with a story about hanging out with Virat Kohli at the IPL and use it as proof that he is being slighted rather than a sign that maybe, just maybe, he was p1ssing everybody off.
Pietersen is so completely and utterly oblivious to the way he is making other people feel that he still insists – and he reiterated the point on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning – that he could come back, that he is “not prepared to accept that I will never play for England again”, even after he has used his book to insult the captain and the coach of the side, the chairman and managing director of the ECB, and the chief of selectors. His autobiography is the most comprehensive act of bridge burning since William Holden parachuted into the River Kwai. The second half is, in intent and purpose, just one long screed against the people Pietersen feels have wronged him. Imagine spending a long evening in the pub listening to the single most miserable of your friends b1tch about their colleagues and you have an idea of what it’s like to read it in a single sitting.
In amongst all this bilious, vindictive, guff there are some brilliantly astute points about what really went wrong, with the England team, with Flower’s management, and with English cricket. Flower, he says, “burdened us with all this bull$hit about legacy, kept us buttoned down and on edge”, “he produced an ugly team who ground wins by playing within our limits”. That will ring true to many, as will the observations about the management’s negligence of Jonathan Trott’s health, and the way in which the bowlers were allowed to bully and berate other players over their fielding. There are lessons here, ones that Peter Moores should learn. The ECB, too, should take heed of his criticisms of its “hypocritical” approach to the IPL, and their culture of “Glances. Whispers. Politics. Agendas.” But you have to winnow a lot of chaff to find the wheat.
All that is good will be lost. The advice will never reach the ears of those who need it most, and even if it does they’re unlikely to listen given the way in which it has been presented. Shame on Flower, for making such a mess of the team he helped create, shame on the English players, for being torn apart by such trivial issues, shame on the ECB for sacking its most talented batsman and then briefing against him, shame on Pietersen himself, for this pathetic indulgence of his personal vendettas. No one has come out of this well. And if the ECB and those injured by Pietersen’s book have any sense, they will learn what they can about what happened, resolve to not make the same mistakes again, and let the rest lie still. There is more dignity in silence. The only exception may be Matt Prior, who must feel he has earned the “right of reply” he mentioned on Twitter, given that he has been so thoroughly traduced that his reputation will never be quite the same again.
Towards the very end of the book Pietersen writes: “One day we’ll all be old guys playing a charity match somewhere, and we’ll look around at the craggy faces in the dressing room and wonder how we let our friendships fall to pieces.” It feels like the one lucid moment, the one resoundingly true passage, in the entirety of the final few chapters both of his book and his England career.