Wednesday, November 19, 2014

KP: The Autobiography

There's a scene in The Simspons episode 'Homer at the Bat' where Bart and Lisa continually bait the baseball player Darryl Strawberry from the stands. Marge, their mother, chastises the children but Bart and Lisa respond with reasoning: that he's a professional athlete, that he's used to it and the taunting "rolls right off their backs". It then cuts to an image of Darryl Strawberry, sniffing and with a tear rolling down his cheek, reminding us that this mega-star of baseball is, in fact, a human being with feelings.

Throughout reading Pietersen's book I found myself thinking of this Simpsons scene. We, the spectators, sometimes all too easily forget that the people we are watching on the field in front of us are human beings, who can hear our criticisms, our insults and our praise. And then there were other times whilst reading it that I found myself expecting someone to be hit by a bus, like Regina George in the film Mean Girls.

It is, perhaps, one of the most frustrating books I have ever read. There were times when I would shout at it, throw it in a corner and refuse to pick it up again for an hour or so. But curiosity always got the better of me and I would find myself picking it up again and devouring it.

I admit to being a fan of Pietersen and someone who has always sympathised with him. It might be because I only started following cricket in 2004 and am not used to the conventional English cricketer, but there was something about him back then that I liked. I remember reading a quote in 2005 from Michael Vaughan stating something along the lines of all Pietersen wanted was a hug, some reassurance and suddenly I found myself sympathising with this larger than life character with the big, bold hair and wondered if there was something more to him than this 'ego' on show.

Pietersen himself admits something along those lines throughout the book. It is, as you would expect, an incredibly open and frank account of himself. We gain background knowledge of his childhood in South Africa, of his family life (with an account of his father that would probably be of great interest to many psychologists). His South African childhood and his battle with his national identity are always underlying, always a tension within himself and within the book. He states, on page 134, that "I'm not as cocky as my image suggests. I'm as insecure as the next bloke, and when I first played for England I was desperate to be accepted."

This desire for acceptance, this wanting to be seen as someone who he eventually realises he is not, is something that Pietersen regrets. He admits that "off the field, I'm a much quieter more solitary person than people imagine" (p225). It is clear that throughout Pietersen's career that he feels there has been this great misunderstanding around him. His need for constant reassurance is not met, admitting that he needs "someone to come along and tell me that I'm playing like a million dollars" as he describes himself as "very shallow" (p129). He is frustrated by the image created of him early in his career and is annoyed by how these early conceptions of him have not been disregarded with the more matches he has played.

Of course, he hasn't helped himself. The sagas in 2009 and 2012 are incredibly difficult to forget, soap operas that were embarrassing for all involved. But they are something, especially in the case of 2012, that he is apologetic about. However, he is a man who is frustrated and hurting. A man who looks at the conduct of some of his other professionals and wonders why they're not being punished like him for similar misdemeanours. A man who looks at his coach stepping down from ODI cricket and wonders why they are allowed to pick and choose their formats whereas he, a player in a similar position, is not. "It was one rule for one player and another rule for me" (p198) he says.

When he talks about the skills involved in playing cricket, it is an incredibly fascinating read. He talks about the technical side of the game, the adjustments that must be made when playing spin. At times, it does read like a love letter to the IPL but at others, you realise that maybe this is knowledge and experience that a lot of young English cricketers would benefit from. When he talks about the mental side of the game, it is again another interesting read. It gives an insight into the mind of and the pressures on the professional cricketer, especially a batsman. Pietersen says, on his seeming arrogance at the crease that "conveying arrogance at the wicket has always been about using my body language as a defence mechanism. Never let them [the opposition] see a weakness. Never let them know there is a war going on in your head" (p143). His insistence that he has helped to coach younger cricketers, his passion and commitment to practice (although, interestingly, mostly alone and on his own cricketing terms) and his knowledge and enthusiasm for the game all come through in these passages, which is what makes these parts, in a book filled with high school-esque drama, worth reading.

It would be easy to dismiss the claims in Pietersen's book as those of a bitter ex. Too easy. Because if you can wade through the endless 'buddies' and continual sniping and elements of his flashy life, then you come to realise that, at the heart of it, he may just have a point. One of the most interesting parts of the book comes in one of the early chapters, 'I Am Like a Hurricane. Not.' He states, "I don't do comfort zones, and if I feel like you are the kind of person who enjoys the comfort zone way of life, I tell you [...] I think me confronting mediocrity throughout my career has earned me this reputation of being destructive." (p117). This book is Pietersen's very public attempt at confronting the mediocrity that appears to be endemic in English cricket.

Yes, he's big, brash and not everyone's cup of tea, but rather than ignore or dismiss this autobiography, perhaps it should be used as a wake up call that English cricket is far too in its own comfort zone. Cricket, especially English cricket, needs big characters, who stand up for their beliefs, otherwise cricket will decline in this country. The English may well have invented this game, but it is the other nations that are rising up and making the game what it is today. And the longer it is that the powers that be in English cricket keep their heads in the sand, the worse off cricket, both in this nation and abroad, will be for it.

(All quotes come from Kevin Pietersen, KP: The Autobiography (St Ives: Sphere, 2014)