Nishant Joshi recalls meeting Kevin Pietersen in his early days at Notts and says it was clear even back then that his attitude and approach was at odds with the culture of English cricket.
“This country is very different to Australia or South Africa, where champion players are really backed and supported. I’m always on my guard now. If you do something wrong, they can’t wait to pounce.” Kevin Pietersen, 2008
One weekend in 2002, I found myself at Trent Bridge for an academy trial. A naive but enthusiastic barely-teen, I was thrilled at the opportunity to prove myself for the first time in front of coaches and a smattering of Nottinghamshire cricketers. I was one of the youngest in a group of about 50 teenagers. Most of the others were double my size and incredibly intimidating.
There was one young man with ridiculous, fauxhawk hair. He towered over everyone, arms folded, and had the air of someone who would rather not have been there, as if he had somewhere else to be. But despite his dead-eyed stare, it never seemed as if he was troubled or anxious in any way. With jaw clenched and eyes narrowed, he wasn’t idly passing time as he skulked in between the nets. He was visualising.
I had recognised him to be Kevin Pietersen, the South African tyro who had burst onto the English scene. A few days before, he had smashed 254* off 252 deliveries against Middlesex. He watched my net for a few hours, occasionally popping over to the batsman to adjust a stance or backlift. It would be a few years before Pietersen was even eligible to play for England, but even then it seemed as if he was focused on something bigger.
Wherever Kevin Pietersen goes, he seems to leave a trail of destruction in his wake. In 2000, he had a stint in England playing for Cannock Cricket Club. Six years later – by then a millionaire and Ashes hero – Pietersen would write an autobiography, criticising everything from his accommodation at the village club, to alleged unpaid barman wages, to the Black Country accents. In late 2000 he departed his native South Africa under a cloud, claiming that he was disadvantaged at Natal due to racial quotas, and after stunning success at his first county Nottinghamshire, Pietersen got into a heated row with club captain Jason Gallian, who threw his kit bag off the Trent Bridge balcony.
Even when playing for England, Pietersen continued to view himself as a shark in a fishpond. He went on a suicide mission in 2008/09 that saw him lose the England captaincy and in 2012 he left Andrew Strauss between a rock and a hard place with some ill-timed texts to the opposition. This was all before falling out with Alastair Cook, and consummating his standoffish relationship with Andy Flower with some more mutually assured destruction. At least he has a friend in Piers Morgan and, crucially, some IPL executives.
Make no mistake, Kevin Pietersen is difficult. He has a history of rejecting authority and conformity to the extent of undermining it, leaving captains and coaches in a ever-simmering quandary: is this man bigger than the team?
There is a consistent theme of hubris in Pietersen’s actions. His ego is overwhelming, both to others and himself. After DoosGate his international career seemed to be over before he released a video on his ‘OfficialKP24’ YouTube channel that was meant to serve as a public apology. It was posted seconds after Mo Farah had won gold in the 5,000m at London 2012 though, and public euphoria was momentarily pierced by Pietersen’s stage-managed attempt at ingratiation. It was a coincidence that the timing of the video’s release was so off the mark, but at a time when it was perceived that he was out of touch with his teammates and reality, it added some comic juxtaposition to reinforce the notion.
Back at Trent Bridge, there was one short and chubby Pakistani kid, who was the youngest to chance his arm on the day. No way was he a cricketer. We were up against boys who played rugby in winter, were well into pubescence and reeking of Lynx, and here was a pudgy tween. Surely he would bowl us some loopy medium-pace and provide welcome respite to the barrage of pace from the rest of the bowlers.
He trundled up to the crease, and the batsman’s eyes lit up: the backlift became higher, the stance more pronounced. This was the one bowler against whom he could show off his full repertoire of strokes. I maintain that what followed was as close to a miracle as I have seen in sport, even surpassing Dwayne Leverock’s effort. The short, chubby lad could bowl. On an indoor surface he was ripping leg-spin that was from another planet. Flippers, googlies, sliders, all being bowled by a kid who was unmistakably out of place.
Pietersen took an interest in the boy, asking how he gripped it, and then watched with befuddlement as batsmen were castled and lost balance against the spiteful bite that was being extracted. The boy was wide-eyed, totally naive. His father was a taxi driver, and had driven him to Trent Bridge in a black cab from Edinburgh. A two-day event, and they slept Saturday night in the cab.
On the second day, as the final picks of the trialists were being made, the leg-spinner had to be the first choice. A kid so talented, surely he would be fast-tracked to a county? Names were called out, and Inzy, as I’d come to know him, had not made the cut. I overheard Pietersen saying that he had vouched for him vehemently, but the other coaches had vetoed it on account of his lack of fitness. He just could not understand how such an obvious talent, such a stand-out diamond in the rough, begging to be polished, could be ignored in this country. He’s still no closer to understanding English cricket today.