July 2019: On the Lord’s balcony South African captain Faf du Plessis holds the World Cup aloft. To his right, his predecessor AB de Villiers beams having notched a ton chasing in the final, the chokers tag for the Proteas and their star batsman finally laid to rest. To his left, player of the tournament Kagiso Rabada was radiating in delight after finishing with five wickets more than any other bowler despite a one-match ban for spitting out his gum inappropriately. With a winners medal around his neck, Farhaan Behardien is there. No one is quite sure how but he is, his dainty 34* helping de Villiers ease South Africa home. There’s only one man everyone is looking at, though: South Africa’s returning anti-hero, the man whose rampant ton in the semis sent the hosts, and once his host nation, crashing out. Five years after being sacked by England, Kevin Pietersen has successfully ransacked the home of cricket.
This might be a scene to rival Shane Warne’s ultimate party line-up in the fantastical cricketing tableau stakes. Yet the notion of Pietersen being at the next World Cup is considerably more likely than Anthony Hopkins turning up in Warne’s back yard to flip burgers. To Pietersen himself, it is actually well within the realms of possibility for on Wednesday, the same day he hit typically whip smart knock of 52 off 37 balls in the T20 Blast against Essex, the Surrey batsman refused to rule out a return to the international fold. Not for England, of course. England is long gone for Pietersen, a fact that allowed him to free his tongue as he’s often freed his arms and say with characteristic candour that two current top order players, Gary Ballance and Keaton Jennings, “cannot play”. Instead Pietersen’s ambitions now lie back with South Africa, who after years of having players in one way or another pinched by England might finally be able to pinch one back themselves.
Turning out for two nations is, of course, not without precedent. Tiger’s father, Iftikhar Pataudi, played for England then captained India just ahead of independence. Kardar, Elahi and Mohammad played firstly for India then Pakistan after partition. Kepler Wessels was able to return to lead South Africa after the end of apartheid following an international career with Australia. These illustrious players making a second international debut was in part due to severe geopolitical tumult. Pietersen cannot claim such a backdrop, but the interest in his own comeback would be similar if not greater.
The man himself wasn’t finished with the teasing. On Friday, ahead of another Blast match against Middlesex at The Oval, he was interviewed on the pitch by his old team mate Andrew Flintoff. The pair reminisced about the events of the Fifth Ashes Test of 2005 at the same ground, when Pietersen’s genius and capacity to own the big stage was cemented in the public’s consciousness. There was a camaraderie – they seem genuine mates despite past differences – between these two complicated characters but even Flintoff was taken aback when Pietersen declared he could still play in the England side “left-handed without pads”. It was classic KP bravado that to some comes across as sandpaper abrasive. Flintoff snorted a little. “You’ve not lost your confidence then, Kev,” he said, chortling.
The match itself was further fuel for those who see Pietersen as a prima donna who only cares about numerus unus. His impatience to get off the mark as soon as possible is so well documented it’s almost a meme. Whoever’s at the non-striker’s end should be not so much on their toes but on tenterhooks and on this occasion it was poor Aaron Finch who was lured to his doom. Pietersen then called for a runner, the delay infuriating Middlesex skipper Brendon McCullum, before causing further irritation by switching the side he would stand on while Jason Roy acted as his legs. After his brilliance against Essex, here he was out for four off nine balls after upsetting both teammates and opposition. All in all, it was a fairly standard week for a cricketer who in England remains more divisive than Brexit to the power of Marmite.
Regardless of Friday’s frolics, no one should underestimate Pietersen’s drive and determination. He could be forgiven for still having a chip the size of Peter Moores’ laptop on his shoulder about his axing and subsequent snubbing by England. There could surely be no greater motivation than to return to his adopted nation for a World Cup playing in the colours of his native land. Despite his dodgy calves, which seem to be getting tighter than Scrooge and were the reason for his runner on Friday, Pietersen looks exceptionally fit and himself says his physical condition is better than when he played for England. He will turn 39 during the tournament, still a spring chicken in Misbah years and quite possibly wouldn’t be the oldest in the Proteas line-up unless Imran Tahir’s celebrations lead him exhausted into premature retirement.
Notably, Pietersen is building a house near the Kruger National Park, where he is engaged with a commendably ferocious zeal in animal conservation, and even uses a rhino-emblazoned bat to raise awareness of the devastating effects of poaching. He has ruled out playing county cricket again next year and remains a T20 gun, in every sense, for hire across the globe. It will be interesting what domestic cricket he commits to in South Africa when he qualifies for selection in a year. He will presumably have to be playing at the very least List 'A' cricket domestically in the run up to the 2019 World Cup if he is to have a realistic chance of getting into the Proteas side. He will doubtless be able to get a team, although with quotas for non-white players being more stringent than ever before at both domestic and international level it would be ironic if the issue which first drove him to England again proved problematic on his return home.
Then comes the small matter of whether South Africa would even actually want him in the side. It is hard to see De Villiers continuing as ODI captain for too much longer if Du Plessis continues to lead the Test side with such icy aplomb and unarguable results. Presuming the hard-nosed lollipop licker of Pretoria does assume the reins, would he want Pietersen involved? The way his side rallied round him after those sugary ball-tampering allegations in Australia last year suggests the current Test captain strives for a seamlessly close-knit unit. Regardless of who was to blame for the cliques and cattiness that developed in the England dressing room under Andy Flower, would Du Plessis’s stubbly pragmatism countenance a Pietersen in the side? Paradoxically, it might be easier to get back in with AB at the helm, but you suspect Du Plessis might be better at dealing with Pietersen’s alleged foibles.
It would, for the sheer theatre, be a joy to see Pietersen back playing international cricket. If he did make it to England in the summer of 2019 it would actually be operatic given the inevitable passions aroused. A majority, if small, of the English cricketing public still seems to hold Pietersen in esteem and the ECB itself has changed considerably for the better since the dark days of 2014/15. So in a sense the sting has gone a little. Nevertheless for many Pietersen’s return to international cricket with a green shirt covering his three lions tattoo would be like an ex marrying your cousin so they could continue attending family functions. The divorce might be long settled, but England and Kevin Pietersen’s intoxicating love-hate affair may, hopefully, be far from over.