The Age of Pietersen

As Kevin Pietersen himself has said in the past few days: 'How did it come to this?'

When Kevin Pietersen made his debut for England in a one-day international against Zimbabwe in Harare in November 2004, Twitter was something birds did.

How did we end up with England's most-capped cricketer arguing via the radio with a bloke from the East Midlands who just happens to know a few England players, about who had access to a Twitter account that was, when all has been said, a parody?

It is squalid, and it is pointless, but it is more than that. As others better qualified to comment than me have said, it is sad. Sad that an era in which the England cricket team were really successful - as we have seen and been told they were far from popular, but they did win matches, and series, and played some great cricket in their way - will, at least for a time, be recalled as an era which ended in dispute and recrimination, claim and counter-claim.

The truth according to Pietersen, or the truth according to Graeme Swann.

What actually happened, or 'the greatest work of fiction since Jules Verne'.

Unless you were there, you will never know.

We are only days into this but it already seems as though all that can be said has been said. Of course, this is never true. There is always more. In this sort of stupid, childish situation, someone will always want to have the last word.

Something which I haven't seen said yet is that 'it was always going to end in tears'. But you can be sure that someone, somewhere, will be thinking that, and saying it. And, as with many people you met around the grounds of England during the age of Pietersen and who would tell you for nothing why they didn't like him, or didn't trust him, they will be spectacularly wrong. Because, for a long time, for all Pietersen's unorthodoxy and flamboyance and apparent immodesty, it did work.

Christ, it worked. 8,000 Test runs at 47, with 23 centuries, say that it worked.

For a long time there were no tears, except, perhaps, the tears of joy which may have been shed by people who saw an England batsman doing things which they never thought they'd see.

These days few people remember the Norwich Union League, but a fair few Somerset fans will recall the time in 2002 when Pietersen took their county for two centuries in two days, one at Trent Bridge and one at Taunton. 269 runs off 201 balls, with 25 fours and 10 sixes. This, it seemed, was a player.

Then there were the ODI tons in South Africa; a time which gave new meaning to the phrase 'batting under pressure'. Then the Test debut at Lord's, head hung low on a gloomy last afternoon as the England lower-order disintegrated around him. Then, seven epoch-making weeks later, the last day at The Oval. Opening out against Lee after lunch, Tait scrambling in the dirt at fine leg, ticking off the overs to safety with Giles, the crowd going wild as they embraced a future most didn't expect and rejected a past many couldn't remember.

Then more great times at Lord's. For some reason I have a particular memory of being in the Long Room when Pietersen returned after scoring a second innings 134 against India in 2007. The members applaud him to the rafters and Pietersen, who walks with his customary upright stride and air of detachment, smiles slightly, his mask of coolness temporarily lost. You sense that it has occurred to him that he has been accepted. Things ran like this for a long time - through the captaincy, through the first Moores era and into that of Flower - there were detractors, of course, in many cases people who couldn't see past the accent and the tattoos, but there were just as many of us who saw him for what he was: a player of genius, playing for a country which doesn't really do players of genius.

For many, 2012 was a watershed, but still we had Headingley and Mumbai, two of the greatest innings ever played by an England batsman.

Many people have written about what it was like to grow up following England in the barren nineties. Those of us who are a little older can remember the Brearley era, and 1981, and 1985, and Botham and Gower, so the success enjoyed by England in recent years hasn't seemed quite so unusual. But, for all the relative joylessness, and the surplus aggression, the years between the regaining of the Ashes in 2009 and the end of it all in Australia in the winter of 2013-14 have been sweet ones. Of course, it has been just as much the age of Cook, or of Swann, or of Prior, or of Flower, but such is the nature of the English cultural psyche, whereby genius - and especially genius combined with outspokenness - is innately mistrusted, the greatest thing about them was the fact that we, England, had a batsman who, on his day, could frighten any team in the world.

Now this is gone for good. Whatever Pietersen may say - and, as an intelligent man, you have to doubt whether he really believes it - it is over. He will never play for England again in any form of the game.

So it is best to recall the Age of Pietersen for what it was. Because, for all kinds of complicated reasons, it will be a very long time before anything like it ever comes again.

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