I WAS the first journalist to interview Kevin Pietersen when he came to this country in 2001.
I was cricket correspondent of the Nottingham Evening Post and he had just joined Nottinghamshire on a three-year contract from his native South Africa.
My first impression of Kevin the Cricketer was that he was not unlike Kevin the Teenager, the Harry Enfield character.
He was a little bit spotty, a little bit dotty, but a perfectly decent fellow at heart – humble, down-to-earth, and infectiously enthusiastic about the great adventure that lay ahead.
Since that meeting at Trent Bridge, I have struggled to reconcile the image I have in my mind of Pietersen then with the figure once more making the headlines now. It is, in fact, utterly irreconcilable for they are two completely different people – at least on the surface.
Pietersen humble? Pietersen down-to-earth? The same Pietersen who went on to win an Ashes series with an outrageous skunk hair-do and who has been called, in the wake of his explosive autobiography, published today, the most self-obsessed cricketer of his generation?
And yet he was instantly likeable when I dealt with him regularly at the start of a journey that was to see him become England’s leading run-scorer before he was unceremoniously sacked earlier this year.
Initially, all went well for Pietersen in England.
He was the top batsman in his first season before his troubles effectively began in 2002 with the sacking of his mentor, Clive Rice, the Notts’ director of cricket.
Factions appeared – it seemed to be a case of Pietersen and Usman Afzaal (another Rice devotee) against the rest – and there was contempt from Pietersen towards Rice’s replacement, Mick Newell, the current England selector, whose first act was to drop him after a poor run of form.
Matters deteriorated as, in uncanny echoes of the current storm surrounding him, Pietersen fell out with his team-mates to the extent that Jason Gallian, the Notts’ captain, threw his kitbag over the dressing room balcony after numerous bust-ups – not all, I suspect, of Pietersen’s making.
My own relationship with Pietersen deteriorated too.
He had developed a habit of pointedly refusing to acknowledge his team-mates on the dressing room balcony whenever he scored a fifty or a hundred, which was pretty much every game, instead only raising his bat towards his girlfriend in the crowd.
One day I wrote something throwaway along the lines of “Pietersen, as is his custom, ignored his team-mates on the balcony and acknowledged his girlfriend”, and he rang me up to claim – mistakenly in my view – that he had, on this particular occasion, acknowledged his team-mates as well.
There was the threat of “hassles” if I ever wrote anything like that again, which frustrated me as I had always got on with him and been writing paeans of praise to him on a daily basis, championing him as an England player-in-waiting long before the majority of observers cottoned on.
No matter. These things happen, and nothing could alter my admiration for his batting.
He is, quite simply, the best I have seen, the player who has given me more pleasure than anyone apart from, perhaps, Australia’s Shane Warne.
Although it seemed to me that Pietersen became blinded by celebrity as his career took him on to Hampshire, the 2005 Ashes and to further controversies, I have always wished him well and carried the sense that, although he can be his own worst enemy and does not help himself, he is also sometimes misunderstood and an easy target for “banter” and put-downs.
I have never liked the strut, and I find the current “you did this; no, you did that” back-and-forth stuff extremely unedifying, not to mention largely irrelevant as he is now a former England player, but I feel he was badly treated when he lost the England captaincy after his much-publicised bust-up with coach Peter Moores.
Pietersen, however, is a man who has little time for those he believes are going about things wrongly, and he would have felt stifled by Moores’s and Andy Flower’s forensic approach. Pietersen, at times, must be a manager’s worst nightmare and yet it is ridiculous to say that he cannot be managed.
Michael Vaughan described him as easy to manage because he understood that to get the best out of Pietersen you have to involve him and make him feel wanted.
The bottom line, indeed, is that Pietersen, 34, should still be playing for England. He should still be breaking records on the cricket pitch as opposed to in the book stores. He should be remembered as one of the greatest batsmen in England’s history. Instead, he will be remembered as a brilliant batsman, yes, but as a divisive figure who has experienced so many ups and downs since he came to Trent Bridge as that wide-eyed youngster.