The Kevin Pietersen Conundrum - Why England need him
Creating controversy has always been Kevin Pietersen's forte. In 2004, he rejected his native South Africa for England, a decision which sparked vitriolic furore amongst his former colleagues who considered it an act of betrayal. Eleven years on, youthful exuberance long departed - as has the lengthy hair laced with blonde streaks - the 34-year-old continues to polarise en masse.
Runs, centuries and enemies: Pietersen has accumulated all three during his international career. Now bereft of the luxury of choice, the current quandary is whether his adopted country should accept him, not the opposite. For the past year, England's management have erred on the side of rejection, telling him he was no longer part of their plans following the humiliating 5-0 Ashes defeat to Australia in early 2014. But as the team's torrid patch in all three formats stretches on - a group stage exit at the World Cup provided the latest embarrassment - it's a stance which appears increasingly flimsy.
The comeback is on
While managing director of the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Paul Downton, seemed to close the door on any potential Pietersen comeback, incoming ECB chairman Colin Graves has suggested a recall is a possibility providing the batsman shows a willingness to commit to county cricket. With assurance therefore seemingly given, Pietersen has effectively ended his role as a Twenty20 mercenary - one he has operated in with varied success since his expulsion from the national side.
By pulling out of his IPL deal with Sunrisers Hyderabad (he remains available for the playoffs if required) in order to play for Surrey, he will make an April return to four-day competition in an effort to be recalled for the Ashes series starting in July. It's a bold move, but one that speaks far more of his desire to compete internationally again than his Twitter ramblings - supported by journalist, and social media henchman, Piers Morgan - have done.
England's significant woes have endured since the departure of Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, in the most recent Ashes, with just a 3-1 Test victory over a hapless India to their credit. The latter - now revived from the troubles of burnout - has been selected for their upcoming three-Test tour against the West Indies, a team in similar levels of strife, albeit for different reasons.
It's a series that will not silence critics, but one nonetheless which affords an opportunity for the stragglers to reaffirm their credentials. Not least for captain Alastair Cook, whose Test hundred drought has extended to almost two years. For a player who has branded a Pietersen comeack as “very unlikely”, his judgment lacks authority. One wonders whether a more dynamic outfit, such as Sri Lanka, would have given KP a lifeline to impress in the Caribbean. With much greater ordeals awaiting England over the next 12 months, what happens on those islands will probably only be remembered in the record books. But alas, they have not.
Tougher challenges ahead
Those ordeals come in the form of New Zealand and Australia, before a trip to South Africa next winter - arguably the strongest trio at the moment in both red and white-ball cricket. England's susceptibility to swing, highlighted in their defeat to the Kiwis at the World Cup, will be exploited once again by Tim Southee and Trent Boult in the bowler's playground that is the early English season. The Aussies and the Saffers all-round supremacy would trump even a competent England batch. Failure to improve imminently and three bloodbaths are not improbable. Nor is the total disbanding of a squad already fracturing.
England are not just short on heroes, but of consistency from their most experienced campaigners. Weak showings from Cook, Ian Bell, and the absence of a genuine spinner, has heaped pressure on Joe Root, Gary Ballance and Moeen Ali - the young guns who have fought valiantly for little reward. In the bowling department, James Anderson, so long the spearhead looks a man battle-worn; he is far from the swinging master he once was. In fact, England are devoid of world-class fast-bowling options in general.
Age is not a factor
There is weight in the claim that picking Pietersen would not be forward-thinking, and that investment in youth would be a better long-term strategy. Indeed, at 34 his time as a cricketer is limited - in a parallel world, a home send-off at the 2019 World Cup would be a fitting place to call stumps. In theory, that gives England four more years of one of their most prolific batsmen ever. Moreover, their dedication to Trott, who turns 34 next month, indicates age is not a valid reason for exclusion. Right now, England require stability and a match-winner. In Trott and Pietersen they have both.
Above all else, KP needs to score runs by the bucketload for Surrey, he must thrust himself into a situation where he is impossible to ignore - anything else and the comeback is a non-starter. Ideally, he would be plying his trade in Division One (there was chatter that Somerset had enquired to sign him) but location-wise, he will be happier at Surrey - his wanting to be closer to London led to him leaving Hampshire in 2010. But most importantly, he will be playing cricket. And if his form is good enough the selectors are set to be left with some uncomfortable headaches in the coming weeks.
Pietersen is a swashbuckler. He has never been an optimum fit for a country whose mantra remains conservatism in spite of the demand for attack modernity brings. He also has a personality matched only by Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff in the past three decades. Sidelining him isn't a testing task for the ECB - although the text messages and his scathing new autobiography hasn't helped his cause either. But while renewing their vows may be an inconvenience, for both parties concerned, remarriage is a necessity. Hence, if Kevin Pietersen racks up runs in the next few months, England must put personal differences aside, and select him.