Cricket, like every other sphere of human endeavor, divides opinion. For some, the West Indies fast bowlers of the 1980s were bullies, who used their physical prowess to intimidate teams into submission. For me, they were artists, especially Michael Holding, beautiful men who illuminated my youth as the token brown face in a white town.
With them, however, there were people who could see both sides, and appreciate the nuances of both viewpoints. With Pietersen, from the time he announced himself with those three flamboyant ODI centuries against the country of his birth, there was never any nuance. For those that appreciated his unique gifts, he was a blessing, as charismatic a batsman as the game had seen since Viv Richards. For the naysayers, he was the mercenary, the me-me-me man.
The reaction to the news that he would deliver the Pataudi Memorial lecture at the BCCI awards was therefore on predictable lines. There was the usual yawn-inducing argument on how it should have been a son of the soil that did the deed, while others suggested he just didn’t have the gravitas to pull it off. After all, this is a man who has spent most of the four years since he last played a Test stirring things up on social media.
The problem with such attitudes is that we only see that side of a person that we want to. But none of us is two-dimensional. Steve Waugh was the man behind mental disintegration, the ugliness that culminated in all this recent empty talk of culture change in Australian cricket. But he was also the individual who championed a home for the kids of leprosy victims, who set off with his camera to get a sense of the cities he was lucky enough to visit.
Pietersen himself put it quite beautifully when he spoke of why Test cricket offers such a distinct challenge. “Because, having played every form of cricket in every corner of the cricketing globe, I remain one hundred per cent convinced that the five-day Test remains the supreme form of the game,” he said. “This may surprise some of you. After all, I am not known as a traditionalist. But in 2005, I maintained that you shouldn’t judge a man by his haircut. And now, 13 years later, I suggest you should not believe everything you read on Twitter!”
What was best about the speech was the fact that he didn’t pretend to be what he isn’t. Clive Rice, a colossus on the county scene with Nottinghamshire in the 1980s and integral part of the Transvaal ‘Mean Machine’, was his hero growing up. Rice passed away three years ago and was far from a popular figure in post-Apartheid South Africa, especially because of his views on transformation in sport.
That didn’t stop Pietersen paying tribute. “Ricey,” he said. “Fearless, graceful and, at times, savage at the crease. Instilling in me the enormity of character required for the first-class game.”
But his most considered words were reserved for the Afghan players about to embark on a voyage into the unknown, the same journey he undertook against mighty Australia at Lord’s in 2005. “The squad, the management, and all those who helped you get here. You guys are sitting on the very edge of history,” he said. “The doom-mongers say this is a dying form of the game, but you have it within your grasp to keep it alive. You are representing a population of 36 million people.
“Your country has scaled the ladder across the shorter forms of the game, but this is bigger and better. And I have every faith that at some stage during the game, one of you will lift your bat – or the ball – up high. Not just to acknowledge the applause for your personal achievement but, more significantly, to pinpoint that moment when all your hard work, the sacrifices you have made and the expectations of others that you have carried on your shoulders have borne fruit.
“At that moment, you will feel a surge of adrenaline, a moment that trumps anything I have experienced in life because you know how difficult it is, how unlikely it was and, uniquely in your case, you will not only have succeeded as a Test cricketer, but you will have done so as a pioneer.”
If there had been more players like Pietersen, Test cricket’s fortunes wouldn’t have declined. As much as he loved winning, he understood that sport at its zenith is also about transmitting joy, about making people dream. “And last but most definitely not least, when you are at the crease; when you have played yourselves in; when you decide to take the attack to the bowlers, commit yourselves fully,” he told the listening Afghan players. “Not just to attack. But to entertain.”
The doubters expected Pietersen to fall short. Instead, behind the lectern, as he once had at the crease, he hit it out of the park.
First Published: June 13, 2018, 12:37 PM IST