Transcript: Couch Talk with Simon Wilde

Couch Talk 135 (Play)

Guests: Sion Wilde, Sunday Times Correspondent and Author of “On Pietersen”

Host: Subash Jayaraman

Subscribe to Couch Talk podcast on iTunes and Sound Cloud.

Also available on TuneIn Radio and Stitcher Radio

Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is author and Sunday Times cricket correspondent Simon Wilde. He talks about his book “On Pietersen”, and the various aspects of Kevin Pietersen’s personaility, his relationships and his stormy yet entertaining tenure with England. Welcome to the show, Simon!

Simon Wilde (SW)– Thank you!

SJ– You have written books on subjects that you didn’t really didn’t get to speak to, for example, Ranji – you didn’t speak to him, but you wrote about him a much acclaimed book. You stitch a story and narrate it from other sources. So, how was this one on (Kevin) Pietersen different from those previous attempts?

SW– It was obviously different with Ranji. With Ranji, it was much about finding the documentary evidence to build the story of his life. Pietersen’s was quite similar to other recent biographies that I have done – of Shane Warne and to a less extent of Ian Botham because I have watched a lot of their cricket. In the case of Warne and Pietersen, I watched as many of their matches and press conferences. With Pietersen, I didn’t actually sit down and interview him for the book or indeed sit down and interview many of his teammates for the book, it wasn’t possible in this situation. I did feel like I was a first hand witness to most of his career.

SJ– The book – you have split it into [nine] chapters, for example, “Pietersen the saviour”, “Pietersen the innovator”, “Pietersen’s captaincy” etc. What was your logic behind how you wanted to split it up to describe Kevin Pietersen as best as you could?

SW– I felt with Pietersen as with Warne and Botham that they were quite enigmatic characters, they were contradictory characters, and therefore their personality was key to unravelling their mystery. Warne came from a very conservative background in Australia, Australia is quite a conservative culture, yet he was a very flamboyant personality on and off the field. And so it was interesting trying to work out what actually made him tick. With Pietersen, it was the same – I was interested in his personality. We all discuss and debate and we can’t quite fathom why has he been disruptive in teams, why is he falling out with teams, why is he doing that? My only interest in the book is to unravel his personality. There are 9 chapters focusing on different aspects of his personalities. That is why I structured it that way.

SJ– Talking about Kevin Pietersen’s personality, there seems to be a paradox, a dichotomy, a divergence if you will, at all points. He is not afraid of things, he is fearless on the pitch. But then he is afraid of things off the field at the same time, of how he is perceived. This dichotomy seems to exist all the way through. You have seen him from the time he came to England to when he was fired from his job, I suppose. Would you say that is a consistent theme, of Kevin Pietersen as a person and a player?

SW– Yes, it is a good point. In the first chapter I call it “Pietersen an identity”. I actually wondered calling that “Pietersen in fear”, because he actually told Flintoff in that interview that he was quite scared about the number of things in his life when he first came over to England. He was scared whether his move would work or not. It put him in an unusual situation and he was afraid. It seems odd trying to think of Pietersen being afraid of anything, certainly on the pitch he was a player. He feared none. One of the characteristics of his play was he was never scared of the consequences, and in fact caused journalists like myself to criticise him when he got out in a stupid way. He also said “If I can take the risk that made the good shot come off, I have to risk failing.” He was very true to that, really, on the pitch. He was at odds with his personality. He is quite an insecure person and he masked it very well. But I think he is insecure. He is quite easily hurt sometimes – with his relationships when they have gone wrong with other players. I think it is because of that that he is clumsy with his relationships. It is borne out of fear, he is not always as confident as he makes out to be.

SJ– But once with a bat in his hand on the pitch, then he is a completely different person, sure.

I want to go back to the time when he first lands on England shores. There was – you could say –hostility, coming over from South Africa, playing for Nottinghamshire, that seems to have set the ball rolling for how he was going to be interacting with others especially as a cricketer?

SW– Yes. He came over in early 2000s, at a time when foreign players were coming to England to play county cricket for quite a few years. People rumbled a little bit. The local players got fed up of the foreign players and the public had become cynical about foreigners coming over and claiming allegiance to England. It was quite a hostile atmosphere. People were tiring of this process. Subsequently, ECB tightened up the rules for Kolpak players to qualify for England. It takes 7 years to qualify for England if you are born abroad now, rather than four. So, it is going to be harder for Pietersen to play for England. It was changing, and he encountered a bit of hostility at that time. he wasn’t he person he is today. He was yet another South African in England looking for a job, really.

SJ– Considering England’s history, it is a multi cultural society. It seems odd for someone like me, an outsider, looking at where England is as a country and how it has come to be the way it is – it is a mixture of all the colonies. It is a bit of mystery to me that there would be such hostility or resistance to that.

SW– I think it is only because of the sheer numbers. England’s national team is very multicultural when you see that at the moment. You have Moeen Ali with Asian background, there is Chris Jordan with Caribbean background. There is Sam Robson who grew up in Australia. We accommodate these people, it is not like we don’t accommodate them. It is just that it creates a bit of friction. There is also a slightest suspicion towards them.

It is funny from the outside, as followers we like to think that sports teams are full of players who are patriotic. But, in fact, patriotism only goes so far. It only works for certain people. If you have a parent who is born in South Africa and one in England, where does your loyalty lie? It is difficult, you can’t easily be pigeon holed as Englishman or South African. What do you do? There are quite a lot of people in that situation – Tony Greig, this applies to him; Andrew Strauss’s both parents were South Africans but he grew up in England. It is a very mixed picture. The England cricket team should be commended for its multi culture, more multicultural than Australia whose history of absorbing immigrants in to its cricket team is pretty poor. I don’t think England needs to be embarrassed about it but it does create tension.

SJ– I want to go back to Pietersen’s personality itself. You made reference to it in the book as well – where he pretends to not care whether anyone likes him while also he constantly is in the need for attention, wanting people to care about him. Another one is – how he saw himself and how others saw him. As someone who covered him from up close, did that cause trouble with how everyone perceived him but what he thought himself to be?

SW– Yes. This goes back to the point about his insecurities. He masked it in a super confident exterior. People needed to spot what he was up to. Michael Vaughan was very good at these. He understood, also because he had to deal with Andrew Flintoff, who was similar in some ways. There were two cricketers who needed constant reassurances. Vaughan was quite happy to give them that and tell them how good they were and encourage them, give them whatever was necessary if that meant building them up by saying how wonderful they were, he was prepared to do it. i think Vaughan understood Pietersen very well.

Clive Rice at Nottinghamshire might have understood him. Others may have been tired perhaps, as he got older and experienced and people didn’t feel so inclined to keep telling him how good he was. They felt perhaps that he should grow up and not need that reassurances. But he needed that reassurances. Those that gave it to him got the results. The ones that were tired of doing that and felt that he should look after himself, that is where relationships broke down and perhaps they didn’t understand how needy he was.

Towards the end of the England time that really fell away. Andy Flower wasn’t in the business of telling Pietersen how good he was any more, particularly after the “text story of 2012”. After that, he wasn’t going to start pandering to Pietersen’s needs.

SJ– But, when he did speak, Pietersen, when giving frank views, for example the players-only meeting they had in Sydney. He gave his frank views on Andy Flower. This bluntness with which he spoke – that made the English fans, his teammates, perhaps media, administrators a bit uncomfortable because as far as I can tell, in English culture you do things quietly in an understated way, am I right?

SW– Yes. There is a cultural difference that South Africans speak more plainly. In many cases, he was too blunt for English society. It is interesting that when a tour goes wrong, like it did in Australia, Pietersen was accused of being disconnected. I would think that entire team was disconnected by the end because the whole thing was falling apart. And for Paul Dowton to watch a very short Test match in Sydney and decide that Pietersen was disconnected from the rest of the group, partly when he was fielding down at the boundary, seems ridiculous to me, frankly. If Pietersen was at fault, and we are just guessing at what happened, he was probably saying to (Alastair) Cook that the ‘tactics were wrong, why don’t you try this, why don’t you do that, why isn’t so-and-so performing better’ etc. They didn’t like him speaking so plainly. My guess is that he criticised Cook’s captaincy and he criticised Matt Prior apparently. Prior has been dropped from the team since then, only he looked like a guy who was literally on his last legs – struggling for form and possibly motivation. Prior has won three Ashes series already, he has achieved everything he probably wanted to in cricket, and maybe even more. My be Prior might have run out of juice. Perhaps Pietersen said that. Well, he wasn’t wrong, was he? Was he wrong to say that Cook’s tactics were wrong? A lot of the Sky commentators in England were criticising Cook’s tactics against Brad Haddin in Melbourne where he had some strange fields. If Pietersen was saying things like that, was he wrong? Possibly not. But the manner in which he said might have been misplaced. Maybe he spoke too plainly.

SJ– You had earlier mentioned about his good rapport with Clive Rice who he saw as a mentor, a father figure, and then he got along well with Michael Vaughan because Vaughan had figured out how to get the best out of him. But, the talk about Pietersen has always been that he is a coach killer in the sense that wherever he goes, someone gets fired or he has a falling out with the relationships. How much of that is true, how much of him responding to authority is true?

SW– The common theory is that he fell out with everyone. As I pointed out in my chapter called “Pietersen and Respect”. The problem part is that the guys he got on with well, he loved them too much almost and would be upset if Clive Rice was sacked as Notts coach which he did after two seasons with Pietersen. Pietersen was comparing everyone subsequently with Rice and didn’t think Mick Newell was as good as Clive Rice. So, the trouble stemmed from him admiring certain people too much and wanted to keep them. He couldn’t understand that other people in the team didn’t like the coach or the results of the team weren’t very good. If he was happy with the coach, he wanted him to be kept in the job.

A part of his problem was – this goes back to his insecurity, perhaps – he needs somebody who is going to give him full on attention. Clive Rice did that, Michael Vaughan did that. He wasn’t happy when they went. So, that is when the trouble started. He didn’t want Peter Moores, which would have only gotten Graham Ford in. He liked Ford. He knew Graham Ford as a family friend since he was a child, and of course he is working with him now at Surrey. It is the guys who he likes that lead him to trouble rather than the guys that he doesn’t like. He needs those guys around.

I think Andrew Strauss wrote somewhere that Pietersen was either a narcissist or a genius. It was possible that he was both. There is narcissism about Pietersen . He just needs help and he is so absorbed in his own game, his own critic that he comes first and he forgets that it is a team game. He is not a team player literally in the sense that he has to get his own game right. He needs certain things, if has those he is happy. He can’t see that a particular coach or captain might be doing well by him but he is not actually doing well by the team, and therefore he needs to be changed. He is perhaps not very good at empathizing with other people’s situations.

SJ– You have covered a lot of cricketers, really gifted genius talent and I wouldn’t shy from putting Kevin Pietersen in one of those. is that usually a thing with geniuses? Because when Sachin Tendulkar was the captain of the Indian cricket team, one of the things was that he seemed to think“If I can do it, why can’t the others do it?”

SW– Yes. It is not all that uncommon for the super gifted players to not be able to understand why the others can’t do it, perhaps Ian Botham falls in that category and that’s why he wouldn’t be a very good coach because he couldn’t understand how the others operate. That is not unusual.

When you look around the world, the men who have coached international teams in the recent times – they are not superstars generally. They work quite hard to get the most of their talents. Andy Flower was one of the most successful players to turn to coaching. It is usually guys who played few international games or none at all, as with Peter Moores – he played a lot of cricket at county level but never played for England. Perhaps that has made him understand how hard it is.

SJ– About the creative genius, or the creative tension – you write about how Pietersen felt on the edge when he had relationships falling apart around him, but made him perform that much better. It is bizarre considering that the greats of the game are in a calm and quiet zone before they go out to play.

SW– Yes, some of them are. I noticed this with Shane Warne. He was brilliant in his early years. He got to the World Cup in 1999 and he was seriously considering retiring at that point, only that he was to take another 400 Test wickets after that. More Test wickets had yet to come than he had already taken. That was about the time when his off-the-field problems had started. There were various tabloid revelations and the drugs ban. The more trouble Warne got into off the field, the better he seemed to play on it. He almost seemed to be wanting to make amends for the disasters happening off the field and actually got the best out of him and made the phenomenon that was Warne and made him keep going as a player to try and set the record straight, reburnish the image if you’d like.

Pietersen was a little bit of that. He was stimulated by trouble at Headingley, the text story of 2012 happened around the Headingly Test match. At Headingley he played probably his greatest ever innings. Those two things are connected. You need to be calm, for a guy to perform on the pitch. But, previously, off the pitch there have been trouble, and these guys have been able to calm them down and perform some amazing feats. I don’t think it was that unusual for the a flair player. Bot for those like Tendulkar or a Jacques Kallis, who grind out runs almost like a machine, they need to have a very stable background. For some of the more flamboyant players, (Brian) Lara might have been like that.

SJ– I wanted to ask you about that – in your time of covering Lara, did you have some inkling of that sort the way things were going?

SW– I remember in 1995, when he was touring England, he was at the height of his power, he had broken the world record the previous year. He came over in 1995 and he went missing during the tour. He just disappeared for a few days and nobody knew where he went. He had so much attention he really couldn’t cope any more. He was the superstar cricketer of that period and he disappeared for a while. The management didn’t do anything about him, they didn’t punish him or anything. They cut him a bit of a slack and he continued to score runs. He was quite a turbulent figure. The captaincy of the West Indies team in his time was a course of friction as well. he wanted the captaincy before he got it, and when he had it people thought he shouldn’t have it and thought Courtney Walsh would be better, that kind of stuff.

There was a bit of inter-island rivalry there as well. There was a bit of turbulence going on there. When he was right at rock bottom in that series against Australia in 1999, when they were all out for 50 in the first innings, he then produced two of his greatest innings to draw the series 2-2. That was another case of turbulence producing some phenomenal performances. It does happen. Pietersen does fit that mould.

SJ– The Headingley Test – in the press conference [Pietersen] comes and says, “it is tough being me.” After writing this book on him and after covering him for so long – was it actually tough being Kevin Pietersen?

SW– I think what he was driving at is that the whole trouble in 2012, was about the IPL and about the fact that he has got this big deal earlier that year for $2m with Delhi and ECB told him that he wouldn’t be let go for long and that he would only be allowed to go for 3 weeks or so, a very short period. Their argument was, “We can’t let you go for the whole season because if we let you go there will be lots of others too.” Of course, there weren’t going to be lots of others because there weren’t many England players who were going to attract the interest of the franchises. Only Eoin Morgan or Ravi Bopara had a bit of a go at the IPL. But not many other players were going to get offers. Pietersen was an exception. I think, if they had showed a bit more imagination, the ECB could have dealt with that situation better. Pietersen spent the whole summer as a result grumbling and groaning that “I haven’t been treated fair, this is ridiculous, why can’t you allow me more time at the IPL” and he was angling for it in the next season, the 2013, to give him more time at the IPL.

Clearly, even if his demands might have been unreasonable, ECB intransigence was also very unreasonable. That was what the whole situation was about. There was a bit of jealousy from the other players. He was being offered this huge sum of money and he was earning more than they were. It didn’t help that he would talk about how much he was earning. So, perhaps that is why there was the phony parody Twitter account that the other players seem to follow and quite enjoy. That upset him a lot, his sensitive nature was hurt by that. That was the difficult, and when he said “It is tough being me”, that is what he meant.

SJ– Kevin Pietersen’s whole playing career has been an expression of individuality. In a team sport, he was the individual. So, was his career bound to end the way it did?

SW– Yes, it was going to cause a problem at some point. I think people saw that the way things were heading, perhaps one day the English management would say “We tried to accommodate this guy and make allowances for this guy and still not possible.” Maybe that is the conclusion that they will come to. This is the guy who is a maverick and behaves like an individual when we are trying to build a team and we have some rules that he has to abide by, but he doesn’t want to do it. Perhaps patience just ran out.

When you are trying to rebuild the team, like England are now, you have to think of the ex-captains in the team who might undermine the project. This was the situation with Gower 20 years ago, and this is the situation with Pietersen now.

SJ– Is it something to do with the fact that this is actually England? There have been maverick players all over the world in all sorts of sports. Somehow, teams try to keep their star players in. Pietersen on his own can win a match, he can fill out stadiums anywhere in the world, and every opposition feared him. Why wouldn’t you want to have him in your team? So, is it something that is essentially English that actually got rid of Pietersen?

SW– It could be. We do love to play regimented cricket, that is the English style of play. It is done by hard work and following processes whilst other teams like Sri Lanka don’t go about like that. They have three or four players that are sheer geniuses. They rely on a (Muttiah) Murali(tharan) or a (Kumar) Sangakkara or Mahela (Jayawardene), maybe (Sanath) Jayasurya is a better example, to turn the match on its head. That is not the English way, really. We do by grinding down the opposition and playing the percentages. Pietersen didn’t fit that mould. Andy Flower, who though isn’t English, but is a Southern African player. A mix of English and African ways is quite rigid, and doesn’t accommodate the flair payers that some of the other countries could.

SJ– Lastly, Simon, when you look back on Pietersen’s career, as a fan of cricket and someone who covered him, what is the lasting impression that you go away with about KP?

SW– I am sad his career ended the way it did, I am sad that I won’t see him play a Test match again, because he was great entertainment. I am glad I saw him play a 100 Test matches. He was an original. It was always interesting watching him, even when things went wrong. If you can call a batsman a genius, he was a touch of genius. In 2005, he was astonishing. He tore Glenn McGrath and Warne to shreds at times. For an England team that had been under the cosh against these guys for 15 years or so, it was incredible to see those scenes. He had just no respect for them. He was going to take them down. He did it brilliantly. It was extraordinary stuff. It was a privilege to watch.

SJ– Excellent!

On that note, Simon, thank you so much for being on the show! Wish you all the best with the book.

SW– Thank you very much!


Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman