From the highs of the Oval in 2005 to the lows at Headingly last year, Kevin Pietersen has always found a way to be the star of the show. An integral part of English crickets golden era the man dubbed ‘the ego’ by the Australian press is set to earn his 100th test cap tomorrow in the first test of this winter’s Ashes series at the Gabba, a feat only achieved by nine English cricketers before him.
Back at the start of his England career nine years ago, ‘KP’ burst onto the international stage. A trio of flamboyant centuries in the country of his birth, South Africa, in one-day cricket set the scene for him to enter the test arena at the start of the most anticipated series this country has ever known. Pietersen’s performance in that match, swatting a pair of fifties in a losing cause, immediately demonstrated his willingness to take the game to even the most revered of opponents. Ask Glenn McGrath, who saw a length ball disappear straight back over his head and into the second tier of the famed Lords pavilion courtesy of an almighty Pietersen straight drive. Later that summer in the fifth and final test Pietersen played one of the outrageous test innings, of which he owns a few, counter-attacking brilliantly on his way to 158 after England had wobbled early on the fifth day at the Oval when trying to close out a 2-1 series win and secure the return of the urn for the first time in nearly two decades.
From that explosive start Pietersen pressed on. In early 2006 he hit back to back centuries against the touring Sri Lankan’s, followed by scores of 135 and 96 during the controversial series with Pakistan later that year. Even during England’s infamous defeat in Adelaide that winter Pietersen was centre stage, striking 158 once more during a monumental first innings stand with the immovable Paul Collingwood. Two fifties in the next test at Perth were not enough to prevent England handing the urn back to Australia at the earliest opportunity, but by then Pietersen had already become the man Australia feared above all others in world cricket. 2007 brought a career best 226 against the West Indies and two more tons during the lost three match series at home to India. In just two short years Pietersen had become England’s star, the man they relied on more than any other, and his ceiling appeared limitless. It wasn’t just the amount of runs he made, but how he made them. It’s been a long time since a cricket shot has been truly ‘invented’, but the switch-hit Pietersen unveiled that summer was indeed revolutionary.
Early 2008 saw home and away centuries versus New Zealand, this time both part of series wins – a rarity for Pietersen thanks to England’s regression following the 2005 Ashes. KP then amassed 152 against his native South Africa at Lords in his first test innings against the country of his birth. Another team crossed of the list, another bowling attack tormented and emasculated. But it all changed two test matches later. Michael Vaughan, bereft of form and having become the first England captain to lose a home series to South Africa since their readmission to international cricket tearfully resigned, and after 42 tests Kevin Pietersen was elevated to the role of England’s cricket captain.
It was a role in which Pietersen’s occupancy was brief, and which would stem the seemingly inevitable flow of runs from his bat. A debut century and a win in a dead rubber versus the South Africans was the perfect start, but after two unsuccessful tests in India Pietersen and then-England coach Peter Moores’ uneasy relationship reached breaking point. Pietersen’s sometimes combative personality surfaced, and his ultimatum to the ECB in an effort to get Moores sacked spectacularly backfired as both men were relieved of their positions with the team. His ego dented, Pietersen had no choice but to return to the ranks following undoubtedly the biggest set-back of his cricketing career. The subsequent series in the Caribbean would see England lose 1-0 in spite of some typical Pietersen knocks – a 97 in his first test since losing the captaincy was followed by two further scores of 50 plus and a century in the drawn final test. However that innings in Port of Spain would remain his last test century for an unfathomable 18 tests and 21 months. A weakness against left-arm spin became more and more pronounced. Injury problems came to the fore, notably an Achilles problem which sidelined him for the final three Ashes tests in the summer of 2009. Without their talisman England were still able to win back the urn with a 2-1 victory against the old enemy, perhaps indicating a shift from their over-reliance on Pietersen towards a more balanced side featuring newcomers such as Jonathan Trott and a finally matured Ian Bell. Pietersen had gone from ‘the man’ to just another name on the team sheet, and with his body beginning to fail him 100 tests seemed a long way off.
But Pietersen wasn’t finished yet, and he still isn’t finished now. A return to form against those hated Aussies with a breathtaking 227 at Adelaide announced to the world that KP still had plenty left in the tank, and his 202 not out against India at Lords early the next year helped England on their way to a clean sweep and their first ever visit to the number one spot in the world test rankings. Another century, a mammoth 175 at the Oval, followed. Pietersen was back and he was as good as ever. Although the teams results began to decline upon their arrival at the summit of the world game Pietersen was still as capable as anyone in the world of a match winning innings. After four successive losses on the sub-continent Pietersen blitzed the Sri Lankan attack once more at Colombo on route to a match winning and series salvaging 151.
What followed that summer is a well visited incident. The text messages to the South African captain Graeme Smith. The infamous press conference he gave after the drawn Headingly test. An ill-advised retirement, then un-retirement for England in limited overs formats. All of the above, primarily the text messages, combined to see Pietersen dropped from the final test of the summer at Lords, where England had to win to draw the series and remain number one in the world rankings. But either side of his isolation from the team came two of Pieteren’s most absurd and masterful knocks. His 149 at Leeds included some quite frankly disdainful treatment of the worlds premier fast bowler, Dale Steyn, who at 90 mph was slapped around Headingly with such ease that it bordered on public humiliation. Then in India, at 1-0 down in the series and on a raging turner Pietersen once again produced an innings that mere mortals could only dream of playing. It was fantasy cricket. His contribution of 186 turned the tide and the series in England’s favour, inspiring them to go on and win on Indian soil for the first time since the mid-80’s.
Ninety nine test matches. Seven thousand, eight hundred and eighty seven runs. Twenty three centuries. An average of 48.38. Those are the raw, emotionless numbers. But as anyone who’s ever seen KP bat will tell you, those numbers tell but a fraction of his story. He’s been a saviour, a talisman and at times a villain within English cricket. But above all Kevin Pietersen has been one of the greatest players to ever wear the three lions. It would be a brave man who’d bet against him bringing up this latest landmark with yet another innings to remember.