"Mediocrity doesn’t interest me"
Following the latest bombshell from England’s newly appointed Director of Cricket, Andrew Strauss, that Kevin Pietersen will not get the international recall he so sorely hoped for, we turn back to our conversation last year with the polarising South African batsman. Was the writing always on the wall for KP? Here’s his side of it…
“Just look where we are,” he says, looking out towards a strip of beach on the eastern-most tip of Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, the view framed by the Marina’s jagged skyline. “The city is just five minutes away but we’re really secluded. The big spenders can moor their yachts over there and the tender service from the public beach will arrive here. Look at it now, sun dipping down behind the skyscrapers… amazing.”
Kevin Pietersen’s enthusiasm for his latest investment, the members-only Eden Beach Club in the grounds of the Rixos Hotel, has an appealingly boyish, just-got-my-license quality. The grand unveiling is three weeks away when we meet, and there is still a buzz of workmen paving walkways, attaching light fittings and clanking scaffolding, but you sense that he’d perfectly happy launching the next morning.
“We’ll be open from 9am; there’ll be yoga and massage, proper food and on weekends we’ll pump it up,” he says, the clipped South African vowels accelerating his delivery. “I’m already in conversations with some big DJs. I want to blow Blue Marlin out of the water! It’s going to be fun.”
Fun, sure, but it’s more than that. This you sense is very much the beginning of chapter two in the 6ft 4in batsman’s professional life. Following his dismissal from the England set-up in February, it’s a phase that no longer includes international cricket; indeed, with no playing commitments beyond 20-over stuff for the Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League in Australia in December and January and a yet-to-be-named team in the IPL in April and May, just how much cricket there is left in the 34-year-old is open to question.
What is clear is that Pietersen will have plenty to occupy him when he does pack away the bat permanently. In addition to Eden, in which he has partnered with local businessman Mohammed Al-Hashimi, he also owns an extensive London property portfolio, a children’s hair salon, the casual clothing line Nena & Pasadena and, with brother Bryan, a couple of cocktail bars – the latest of which, Rubi, opened in Surbiton in July. Back in Dubai, he is also about to open the Kevin Pietersen Cricket Academy in the grounds of the Kings’ School in Al Barsha, which will provide top-tier coaching facilities for local schools and international teams.
The transition to ex-player is one he has long planned. In late 2000, aged just 20, he traded his native Natal for Nottinghamshire, a move secured on a British passport inherited from his mother that effectively decided his Test-playing future. When he arrived, he walked into a dressing room sprinkled with ageing, middling professionals clinging to their modest contracts and hoping, at best, for some kind of teaching job at the end of it all. Save for a sliver of top-tier international talent, he quickly realised this was not a sport synonymous with financial security.
“I spent the first few years of my career in England on the p***, enjoying being young, being single,” he says, having decamped to Eden’s unfinished bar area, still wearing the T-shirt from the last frames of our photoshoot. “But I looked around me and I thought that, at 35, I didn’t want to be sitting at the end of my bed thinking, What on earth am I going to do now? I knew I needed a structure in place to maintain the lifestyle that I’d have as a player. That was my goal: to not get to the end and then scrabble about for a living.”
Not that Pietersen was ever likely to be a jobbing pro, content to drive home in a mid-range Korean saloon with a sponsor’s logo plastered down the side. From the moment he made his Test debut, during 2005’s intense Ashes battle at, of all places, Lord’s, it was clear he was box-office. Australia won that first match at a canter, but his scores of 57 and 64 not out meant he became only the fourth England player to top score in both innings on debut.
For the next nine years, he was a dominant middle-order presence in the nation’s best side in two decades, a self-confident cocktail of the belligerent and the brilliant, the unorthodox and the uncompromising. With his chest-out strut and inventive strokeplay, he was able to amass 8,181 Test runs, the fifth-most of any England player in history. He also hit 23 centuries and several series-settling innings, such as his 158 at The Oval in London to help seal the 2005 Ashes and the 202 not out against India that, in 2011, kick-started England’s ascent to the top of the world rankings.
Pietersen’s celebrity status, which was amplified when he married Liberty X singer Jessica Taylor in 2006, was a platform he could now use to, in his words, “do things away from cricket”. While his teammates spent their days off on the golf course or in the pub, he’d be on his laptop, looking for business plans, sending emails, surveying P&Ls. He was, a succession of colleagues would discover, more interested in Bloomberg than banter.
“Playing top-level sport, you get the chance to meet very interesting, very influential people,” he says. “I always tried to pick their brains, see what was happening, and you end up doing things together because you realise that you have a similar way of thinking. It’s why I’m here working with Mohammed, who has become a really good friend.
“I guess I’ve always liked being around successful people,” he adds, leaning forward slightly. “Mediocrity doesn’t interest me.”
Not a vintage year
Dubai would seem like a perfect fit for Kevin Pietersen. It’s a place of conspicuous wealth and unapologetic careerism, where looking good, having fun and making money are celebrated as they are in, say, Miami or Los Angeles. It’s no surprise he has been a regular visitor over the years, enjoying family holidays at Atlantis and claiming to anyone who’ll listen that Caramel is one of the best restaurants in the world. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s eight hours from London, eight from Johannesburg. You come over, hang with your mates, eat in beautiful restaurants, play golf, and no one bothers you.”
In that regard, Dubai must also represent a welcome refuge from England right now. The view across the calm, sun-dappled Gulf from The Palm might be serene, the future filled with clinking glasses and numbered bank accounts, but there’s little question that 2014 has been, from a cricketing perspective at least, a genuine annus horribilis.
It started in the worst possible fashion with a shambolic five-nil series defeat against arch-enemies Australia, a tour in which his already fragile relationship with England head coach Andy Flower disintegrated into lip-curling disdain. “I got into trouble because I spoke my mind,” Pietersen says, by way of explanation. “If I think someone’s a p***k, I’ll call them a p***k.” Although he was by no means the worst performer in the side, insufficient runs, injudicious shots and increasing dressing room acrimony all led directly to the cancellation of his England contract. The accompanying statement from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) expressed the need for the team to move forward with players willing to offer “their full support” to captain Alistair Cook. The accusation was clear.
“I sat on my sofa in England over the summer getting messages from players asking ‘How do I play this guy tomorrow?’ Really? Go and ask your amazing coach, mate!”
It was then discovered that Flower had already been compiling a dossier to try and have Pieterson sacked on disciplinary grounds, a document that included high crimes such as staring out of the window during team meetings and somehow encouraging tweets from Piers Morgan that criticised the team. To cap it all, he was then called one of least ambiguous pejorative nouns by former skipper Andrew Strauss – live on air.
Of course, Pietersen’s England career had hardly been smooth sailing to that point. In 2012, to take just one year as an example, he’d insisted he be allowed to play in the lucrative IPL in India instead of England one-day games and was then caught sending unflattering text messages about Strauss to South African players team during a match. While there was once room for reconciliation and reintegration, there wasn’t to be any post-Ashes bridge-building.
Ultimately, Pietersen was no longer seen as a game-changing maverick whose genius needed to be accommodated, but as a cocky, conceited outsider more concerned with personal acclaim than professional unity. Paul Downton, who stepped into the whole tawdry episode when he was appointed managing director of the ECB in February, added his own unnecessary subplot by saying that he “couldn’t think of anyone” who wanted Pietersen back in the team. He was suddenly a riddle no one could be bothered to solve anymore.
Pietersen didn’t wait long to counter. In October, he released KP: The Autobiography, a breezy, breathless and often brutal account of his career and the many controversies it contained. Much like his better recent innings, it is a combination of calculated assaults – on Flower’s apparent culture of fear, on dressing room cliques, on anything to do with wicketkeeper Matt Prior – and deft defences of his commitment and contribution. Above all, it is his attempt to protect the legacy of one of English cricket’s most outrageously gifted players.
“It’s the only thing that really p***es me off,” he says, treading back into those waters with a weary reluctance. “The fact that I have to keep combating the media’s negative image of me. I never had this reputation with [former England coach] Duncan Fletcher and [former captain] Michael Vaughan. If they were still in the England set up we wouldn’t even be talking about it. But I’ve had a coach that I have battled with for five years who at every opportunity went bang, bang, bang, bang, using the ECB machine to jab me.
“Go and ask any of the young players in the England team,” he continues, as though mentally constructing another headline. “Ask Eoin Morgan about what I have done for his game. I’m so tight with a lot of these guys. I sat on my sofa in England over the summer getting messages from players asking ‘How do I play this guy tomorrow?’ Really? Go and ask your amazing coach, mate!”
Importantly, it’s not a lone voice. His views on England’s management have received support from the aforementioned Vaughan and former Australian captain Ricky Ponting. Geoff Boycott, one of his most ardent admirers despite his own conservative approach to the game, feels that Cook and Flower let Pietersen, and ultimately England, down. “Most very talented sportsmen are like diamonds. They sparkle and glitter and light up the game. They catch the eye and enchant the public,” Boycott wrote in The Daily Telegraph. “But all diamonds are flawed. They are not perfect and you have to learn to nurture a diamond. They have not done that with Kevin.”
Simon Wilde, cricket correspondent for the Sunday Times and author of the summer’s On Pietersen, suggests that Pietersen has been scapegoated for a team that “really lost the plot” on all fronts in Australia. “He was a certain type of player, someone to come in at 240-2 and finish the opposition. When the team was doing well, everyone was happy. It was when the openers struggled, as they did on the last Ashes tour, that he was asked to play a different, more circumspect role. Then he got blamed for not producing.”
Wilde also thinks the “selfish” tag is not just wide of the mark but irrelevant. “The criticism came from a lot of people who simply didn’t know him,” he says. “Even if Pietersen were selfish, it’s is hardly unusual for players at that level, especially in a sport such as cricket. In another era, it would have all been sorted out in the dressing room and they would have just got on with it.”
As it is, though, there is no more “it” to be getting on with. Pietersen will probably forever remain an ex-England player, unable to help regain the Ashes in 2015 as he promised, or close the gap on the players above him in England’s all-time run-scoring rankings. He is just 280 behind Alec Stewart in second and 700-odd behind leading run-getter Graeme Gooch. Even a modest series with the bat would have taken care of the first.
“It’s frustrating,” he says, acknowledging there is little hope of a route back into the international fold. “If I’d batted against Sri Lanka and India in the summer, I know I would have gone past Alec Stewart and probably got close to Gooch as well. I know I can play until I’m 40. I know I have five or six years of top-flight cricket left in me. Misbah ul-Haq just hit a century of 56 balls against Australia in Abu Dhabi and he’s 40!”
What lies ahead
Still, there are several upsides. He is enjoying his first protracted break from the game for nearly 15 years, a four-month window that has not only allowed him to take a more hands-on role in his various businesses, but also rest his troublesome knee ahead of the T20 fireworks. He is, after all, still a cricketer, still a major draw on two continents, still worthy of seven-figure contracts.
“A lot of people might accuse me of being mercenary, chasing the money in Australia and India,” he says. “But I have to remind them: I got sacked! I had to go out and get a job. This is me working.”
As the sun finally disappears over the Marina, a number of lights flicker on around the Eden Beach Club, illuminating the cabanas and terraces and providing a hint of what this place might look like when it opens to the public. The lighting rig is up, the cushions in place, the individual swimming pools all tiled and ready to be filled. This is Pietersen working, too. Taking calls, shaking hands and making suggestions… he looks very much at home.
After the year he’s endured, the barrage of criticism he’s faced, it’s tempting to think he’s well shut of international cricket with its media scrutiny, officious management and endless parade of on-message PR men. He stands and shrugs, not quite wanting to agree.
“All I am trying to do now is continue to make a living and enjoy my life. Have fun. That’s it. But yeah, f*** em.”