The Accidental Radical: How Kevin Pietersen Challenged English Cricket’s Invented Traditions

Any good British political drama has a dodgy dossier, and the ongoing conflict between Kevin Pietersen and his erstwhile employers at the ECB is no different. There can be no doubt that it is political argument, revolving around representation, power and authority, and Pietersen bears a certain resemblance to another controversial figure linked to dubious documentation. Tony Blair had the same egomania and messianic sense of his own manifest destiny. Both men were capable of seeming simultaneously overly sincere and insincere. Both were able to jab the raw nerves of Middle England, purposefully or not.

Pietersen’s ambition was quashed more than Blair’s, his inability to express his perceived potential in the confines of a rigidly structured England dressing room leaving a toxic legacy. But to blame Andy Flower’s specific methods would be too limited an approach. Pietersen was up against English cricket as it constructs itself, and is constructed in the minds of the public and press. To be accepted, he would have had to have changed. A lesser player might have done; his refusal ended messily. But like Jonathan Trott, he is a victim of English cricket’s invented traditions. English cricket is wary of being too serious or demonstrative – the very best must be self-deprecating or jovial, and only the average can be hard-working. Trott was too obsessively focussed to be loved, suspiciously driven. Pietersen’s focus on fulfilling his conception of himself was similarly suspect, his brilliance calculating and his motives seemingly self-centred.

When combined, Pietersen’s ability and personality were destabilising. But perhaps his most damning trait was his iconoclasm: his insistence on the importance of the IPL, his views on coaches and colleagues, his demanding standards of others. English cricket’s founding myth is one of cordiality and gentle entertainment; Pietersen, mostly unwittingly, challenged the essence of it. It was not a calculating gesture. Pietersen is an accidental revolutionary, his demands for change to suit him and his talent were done in his interests, not those of English cricket. But it is his unconscious irreverence that has made him a polarising cause célèbre.

When the historian G.M. Trevelyan stated that “if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt”, he encapsulated the place of the sport in the English imagination. In this arcadia of “gentlemen and players”, cricket saved England from revolution. Sport guaranteed class harmony. In reality, it served as a rigid social control, perpetuating hierarchy. By idealising the status quo, it served to both legitimise and perpetuate a utopian vision that could be called upon if the structure was challenged. That is what the all-consuming focus of a Trott or Pietersen threatens, by professionalising an idyllic pastime. It isn’t real, and cricket no longer serves as a salve for social ruptures, but it has been imagined and institutionalised in the collective memory of a nation. Not even KP, switch-hitting all the way to Bangalore, could reconfigure the sport in the mind.

Another English perception of cricket was that of the public school, sport as training for leadership and life. Sport was there to inculcate values, not entertain or exhilarate. This image of the game overlaps with Trevelyan’s concept of order, cricket as a form of social management. Serving this purpose, no-one can be bigger than the game, and this ethos still lingers. Whilst cricket as empire-building may not seem cordial, it serves the same purpose as “gentlemen and players”’ matches. It is a frippery to an end, a sugar coating for a pill. Professionalism and intense focus on the sport in its own right is unfair on the other players, disrupting the ritual, competing in the ceremonial. In the most famous invocation of schoolboy cricket as imperial training, Henry Newbolt’s Vitaï Lampada, winning a match is not “…for the sake of a ribboned coat/ Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame”, but rather to “play up! and play the game!”. The action cuts from cricket square to infantry square, where “The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead/ And the regiment blind with dust and smoke” and the values introduced on the playing field come into their own.

At his best, Kevin Pietersen may have had an incredible destructive power – to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc on the reality of the Gatling gun, “Whatever happens, we have got/ Pietersen, and they have not” – but he was not a man, to use an apposite cliché, you’d want in the trenches with you. You’d rather have, to extend the military metaphor, Brigadier Block, as Paul Collingwood was nicknamed after two fine defensive performances in South Africa. That was what English cricket was about; together with Mike Atherton and Jack Russell’s Johannesburg resistance, it fitted into the English sporting imagination, configured as probably the finest resistance in South Africa since Rorke’s Drift. This colonial detritus was one barrier for Pietersen – he could never escape the Pietermaritzburg accent – but also continues to shape English conceptions of sport. Football grounds have Kop ends; Javed Miandad is described as a “wild man of the Khyber” in the press. It is trapped by the invented traditions, the narratives that give symbolic meaning to the Three Lions or the Long Room, but which cannot be easily reimagined to accept players who encapsulate the modern. The glory lies in the past, and will remain there until it can be transcended.

Andy Flower’s successful England side, with its ruthless professionalism, might not seem to fit this model of English teams as nostalgic relics, unable to innovate. But, in reality, one of the crucial reasons for its success was its reliance on performing the basics well, its cohesion, its acculturation of new players: a new form of cricket as manager and creator of values. Now that victory can be accepted as an end to itself, it has become the aim of the project. Team England trains its players for success, shaping them as cogs in a machine. The step is now from training group to test match, rather than colonial battlefield, but the mindset is still one of using cricket as a transformative force. The difference is that the sport itself has become the ultimate purpose, the space where the learned is performed.

One of Pietersen’s main criticisms of this environment is the alleged “bullying” that took place. Certainly England’s bowlers could be harsh on their fielders, and the environment was steeped in “banter”, the orthodox culture of the modern dressing room. Yet this does not contradict or preclude success; rather, it created the cohesion that allowed England’s cricket to prosper. If not quite hazing, it was a process under which new members were co-opted, or proved unsuitable. Pietersen had the ability to transcend the process, but was therefore never fully inculcated. These attitudes can be linked again to the national cricketing myth of cordiality – outward and on-field unity take priority over dressing room harmony and the acceptance of difference. Whilst James Anderson’s alleged altercation with Ravindra Jadeja this summer may not seem to fit with the ideal of amicability, in reality, it did little to challenge it. The England attitude is competitive but conservative – a truly subversive challenge to the national mythos would be to play alongside Jadeja in the IPL.

Pietersen’s uniqueness was his reluctance to conform. Fred Trueman, the epitome of a working class cricketer, was shabbily treated and long fought to prove he belonged at the heart of English cricket. But this was necessarily personal. He could not champion social change and find recognition. As his biographer Chris Waters puts it, “the battle he fought was for personal acceptance; he was never on a wider crusade for the common man”. To quote Trueman himself, “Communism, Marxism, Trotskyism – all that sort of thing frightens me to death”. But as much as the revolutionary, the enigmatic must be discouraged. England cannot produce a mystery spinner because deception is anathema to its conception of the purpose and spirit of cricket. It is no surprise that the handle of the parody Twitter account that so incensed Pietersen was @KPgenius. Genius is somehow suspicious and untrustworthy. The attitude seems to recall the anti-intellectualism of the public school, the use of sport to keep boys grounded.

On another level, it recalls the remark of the Labour MP Richard Crossman in his book on disillusioned communists, The God That Failed. British suspicion of communism and utopianism, for Crossman, comes from a “conscientious objection to infallibility”. At his very best, often only for a few overs, Pietersen could seem infallible, toying with even the best bowling. His post-lunch assault on Brett Lee at The Oval in 2005; his switch-hitting of Murali at Edgbaston the following year; his dismissive treatment of Dale Steyn at Headingley in 2012. Englishmen aren’t supposed to play like that, with calculating brutality. A Botham or a Flintoff, having fun, hanging on by the skin of their teeth, is accepted as an entertainer; the rational destruction of a Pietersen is somehow unfair. In the ever Orientalist culture of the English cricketing imagination, such transcendental batsmanship is the preserve of the foreign, Asian players who are “meditative” like Tendulkar, ethereally focussed. Such dominance, especially when attached to an ego, becomes threatening from an Englishman, a potential rupture in the social order.

Such a schism can never be allowed to open. Cricket must be genteel, and it must be able to pass unnoticed, a secondary phenomenon, be it as light entertainment or social adhesive. Other nations maintain imagined cricketing traditions: in Pakistan, the national team is an explicit representation of the nation-state, whereas in Australia, it is “radical reactionary”. In England, it remains a narrative of harmony, enabling the perpetuation of idealised pasts and continuation of stable presents. One of Kevin Pietersen’s more infamous quotes is “it’s tough being me”. Some derided him as a prima donna, but he is right. He was never going to fit in. Gary Ballance, England’s latest Southern African import, may have been born in Harare, but he has come into the England team via Harrow School and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, two institutions that have formed dozens of England players. His youthful high jinks have been excused, seen as more Bullingdon than Bulawayo, and therefore unthreatening. Pietersen, however, has always been seen as an individual, on personal terms rather than as a product of a club with connotations, one for whom sheer weight of runs and innovation have served to advance his career. His drive towards perfection, genius, infallibility as an individual, has made him an accidental radical. By seeking to improve the structures he saw as restraining his potential, he has challenged English cricket’s myths. For Pietersen, runs were all that mattered. But he has discovered that when you are a cultural revolutionary, they matter least of all.

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4 Responses to The Accidental Radical: How Kevin Pietersen Challenged English Cricket’s Invented Traditions

  1. Some excellent stuff there, Christian. My own firm view (similar to yours, if I’ve read this correctly) is that KP was always destined to fall by the wayside as his excellence on the field, his unembarassed professionalism and, yes, his ‘iconoclasm’, run so counter to all kinds of aspects of English culture. Don’t be too good (and if you are don’t behave as if you know how good you are), don’t try to hard, don’t say what you think, don’t get offended by ‘banter’.

    In retrospect, the only surprise (with rights and wrongs on both sides) is that he managed 104 Tests. And that is something to be really thankful for.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Brian. We should be thankful they held it together, indeed! Although the backlash from excluding KP at his very best would potentially have been more destabilising – people still love to watch him bat. His brashness had a certain charm when tempered, but the recent recriminations starkly show the cultural clash. But I think this is the right way to look at Pietersen – talented enough to illuminate the entire structure of the game, with its wonders and its flaws. That’s how he will be remembered.

  2. Correction to last sentence of first para: ‘don’t try too hard…’, obviously.

  3. Pingback: Notes on a Return | A Domestic Ghost

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