Kevin Pietersen: England's new leader.
The king is dead, long live the king. Kevin Pietersen's deck-clearing appointment as England's new captain, across all forms of the game, is a bold and welcome statement of intent from an England selection panel that, only two matches ago, stood accused of gross prevarication. Doubts are sure to remain about the wisdom of appointing a man whose first and only experience of leadership came in the final ODI against New Zealand in June, and who - when it suits the public imagination - is all too easily cast as an interloper. But make no mistake, Pietersen the best candidate for the job, and in fact the only one.
Like a city whizkid or a great captain of industry, Pietersen is ambitious for ambition's sake, which does not sit easily with those who misconstrue his motives. Englishmen in particular, with their ingrained love of the underdog, find it hard to accept those who aren't content merely to bumble along in life and settle for second-best. And yet, the basic premise of sport is the quest to be the best, a challenge that Pietersen has embraced as if he were Roger Federer or Tiger Woods. He has no interest in being anything less than the greatest player who has ever lived, but unlike so many wannabes who mouth off and then vanish, he has consistently shown the talent, chutzpah and audacity to back up his promises with deeds.
Of course, none of that automatically marks him out as captaincy material, for there is a selfishness that comes with the pursuit of excellence, which is a criticism that has been levelled at Pietersen ever since he turned his back on South Africa as a teenager and made the great trek north to Nottinghamshire where he began his assault on the England team. His days at Trent Bridge ended in acrimony in 2005, when his bags were flung out of the dressing-room window by his irate captain, Jason Gallian, and the nickname of "Ego", with which the South Africans have taunted him throughout this series, is clearly not a misplaced sobriquet.
And yet, despite the naked ambition, Pietersen has a self-awareness and diplomacy that only become apparent when you observe him at close quarters. The England captaincy is not something for which he has actively canvassed - in fact, this time last year he pulled himself out of the race for the one-day leadership, correctly ascertaining that he was not ready for such a role. Recognition has made him a more patient person, and a more likeable man too. The acclaim that greeted his century against South Africa at Lord's in last month's first Test was a heartfelt endorsement from a public that took its time to be convinced, but is now ready to embrace him as one of their own.
"I ummed and ah-ed last year, when I was asked whether I wanted the one-day captaincy," said Pietersen, "but my gut instinct wasn't right. Now I'm more of a rounded figure as a player, and I've got a lot more support from the lads. That's one of the most exciting things, all the text messages and phone calls from senior players in the squad who basically said: 'We're right behind you, we support you. Give it your best shot.' Once you've got the support of the lads around you, there's nothing more you can ask for."
Pietersen's brand of diplomacy, as with his cricket, extends beyond words and into deeds. Contrary to all the expectations when he arrived in the England side, with a badger-streak through his hair and bling dripping off every limb, he is the model professional. Nobody trains harder in the side, nor thinks more deeply about their game, and although it is easy to be sniffy about the pop-star wife and the appearances in Hello! magazine, when has Pietersen ever erred from the straight and narrow in his off-the-field life? His marriage seems as solid as can exist in celebrity circles - in fact, he said his wife, Jessica, was the first person he consulted when offered the captaincy - and he hasn't been seen the worse for wear in public since the Ashes party in 2005, when sobriety would have been a crime against team-bonding. He was certainly nowhere near the Fredalo scandal that scuttled England's World Cup campaign last year.
In some circles, such standoffishness would undermine his credentials, but the England captain cannot afford to be too wrapped up in the dynamics of the dressing room. "We really want to like him," was how one senior player described the team's relationship with Pietersen last year, a comment that suggested admiration if not an outright acceptance. But chumminess with his charges ultimately caused Michael Vaughan's downfall, after his misplaced comments about team unity in the Headingley Test, while Vaughan himself dismissed Andrew Flintoff's leadership credentials way back in 2005, correctly ascertaining that his matey nature would prevent him from laying down the law when it mattered. All the best leaders need a hint of the bastard about them. Vaughan had it, Nasser Hussain had it. Pietersen, one suspects, will produce it in spades when required.
Talking of Vaughan, Pietersen's appointment is a fitting tribute to England's outgoing captain, whose influence on the squad over the past five years was so great, only the biggest boots in the team would be sufficient to justify the sacrifice he has made. When Vaughan left the field during the Edgbaston Test, it was Andrew Strauss who was left calling the shots, and no doubt he would have made an adequate replacement. But that would have been no more than a continuation of the stop-gap culture that has beset English cricket since Vaughan first succumbed to the knee injury that wrecked the continuity of his Ashes team.
Flintoff was a no-go, none of the other viable candidates - Strauss, Paul Collingwood and Alastair Cook - could guarantee their places in all forms of the game, and as Geoff Miller reiterated today, one of his primary aims upon accepting the role of national selector at the start of the year was to find a captain to draw all three facets of English cricket together. "We're looking for a fresh approach," said Miller, "and I'm sure he will take us forward in an exciting manner."
There's little doubt about that - although perhaps the biggest concern that surrounds Pietersen's appointment is the effect it could have on his own expansive game. The criticism that came his way after he holed out to mid-on for 94 at Edgbaston would have increased ten-fold had he already been captain, and yet, to drive Pietersen into his shell and deny him the right to play on instinct would be to halve the effect of his performances.
"I hope it won't restrict the way I play, and I think it would be silly to start thinking that it will," he said. "I play the way that I play, and it's a way I've been successful so far in my career. It is exactly the way you need to play against South Africa, and exactly the way you need to play against Australia. You've got to be positive and aggressive, so hopefully it won't affect my batting."
The main point about Pietersen's aggression, however, is the intelligence with which he backs it up. So the shot that got him out at Edgbaston was an error, but what preceded it was breathless, brilliant, and meticulously planned. As Mike Atherton wrote in the Times last week, the justification that Pietersen gave for his audacious reverse-swept six off Muttiah Muralitharan on the same ground two summers ago was almost as impressive as the planning and execution that went into the stroke.
"To understand that shot you need to know that I had just come down the wicket to Murali three times; I had hit him over mid-off for four, through mid-off for four and then I had cut the doosra for four. Murali moved his mid-off and mid-on back and put men at deep square leg and cow corner. All my options had been blocked."
Pietersen may be a rookie leader, but he's been well schooled under Vaughan at Test level, and Shane Warne at Hampshire. If he puts that same inventiveness into his field placings and bowling changes, England will be impressively served in the coming years.
There will be those who doubt the wisdom of handing the captaincy to the best player in the side, and it's true that both Flintoff and Ian Botham were overwhelmed by the responsibility. But such an approach has rarely let the Australians down, and let's not forget that the last man to be appointed as England's full-time captain was none other than Vaughan, who was the No. 1-rated batsman in the world when he succeeded Nasser Hussain in 2003. Admittedly Vaughan's personal returns took a dip with the responsibility, but the handsome pay-off was six series wins in a row. At their current low ebb, England would gladly settle for a trade-off of that magnitude.
For all the positive signs, Pietersen's appointment will still be viewed in some quarters as a gamble. His media savvy and marketability are a boon for the English game, but those who look for historical parallels will doubtless fear that he is about to do what another South African-born captain, Tony Greig, did to the game in 1977. It is widely known how actively Pietersen has agitated for an IPL-shaped window to be created in England's schedule, and it was also noticeable how quickly he ducked the issue today.
And yet, the circumstances are somewhat different these days. Greig threw in his lot with World Series Cricket because the pay for international cricketers in his day was desultory. Pietersen, on the other hand, will not be wanting for remuneration in his new role. In this challenging era of attractions outside the Test arena, the ECB are expedient to indulge KP's ego, and give him the biggest job which he can ever attain. If he's half the man he's led us to believe he is, he is sure to rise to the honour with pride. His quest for greatness demands it.
England appoint their new captain