There is a sign on the chaotic roundabout at the Panchvati Cross Roads, central Ahmedabad. ‘Educated people,’ it reads, ‘do not blow horn.’ The irony would not be lost on those who have come to the state of Gujarat in India this week to witness the reintegration of Kevin Pietersen.
England’s most destructive batsman was considered to be doing rather too much horn-blowing during the series with South Africa in the summer. A few raspberries sounded too, mostly in the direction of then captain Andrew Strauss. So Pietersen and his team-mates parted company, and at one stage it looked as if he would be blowing solo from that point.
Then, after a crushingly disappointing World Twenty20 competition — during which England suffered the humiliation of playing badly while Pietersen commented on their performance as a television analyst — came the peace deal brokered by ECB chairman Giles Clarke.
Reintegration was the word of the day. Pietersen was back in the fold but only after grievances had been aired, shared and consigned to the past.
It is fitting that today, the eve of the first Test here in Ahmedabad, is also the start of the Hindu new year. Diwali, the festival of lights, passed with many fireworks and explosions on Tuesday. It is to be hoped it was quieter at the Marriott hotel, where England’s players are cosily ensconced, friends and comrades once more.
At the Sarder Patel Stadium, in the Motera district by the banks of the imposingly winding Sabarmati River, Pietersen went through his drills in the nets yesterday. As he worked, no horn-blower could have drowned out the police chief with the microphone beyond a white wall whose bellowed speech seemed to run to several hundred pages. He was reminding his officers of their duties. There will be some 5,000 of them, marshalling a crowd that is expected to get no bigger than 4,000 on Thursday, pitiful in a 54,000-capacity arena.
The chief ranted, Pietersen ploughed on. Some throwdowns from Ashley Giles, a brief session against Monty Panesar, a monstrous, showy straight drive that flew over the white-sheeted perimeter and made a nasty, metallic clanging noise against something beyond.
He is the visitor India wants to see, no doubt of that, and history suggests he will not disappoint. Like many of sport’s great egos and controversialists, Pietersen is never better than when all eyes are on him. Called up against his native South Africa in 2005, he received a hostile reaction from the home crowd, who jeered his appearance and turned their backs on him when he returned to the pavilion.
In the circumstances, his record was remarkable. In six one-day internationals, he scored 454 runs and was named the player of the seven-match series. England lost to South Africa 4-1.
As captain and under pressure after a poor first Test in India, he recovered to score 144 in the rematch. Removed as captain in controversial circumstances, his first Test innings after the decision brought 97 against the West Indies in Jamaica. Nobody would be surprised by a similar score here. This is touted as a turning wicket and few are shouting the odds for England but there is a different vibe around Pietersen, who will no doubt be looking to redefine the meaning of reintegration.
There are, as ever, all manner of sub-plots and alternate motivations. For a player who has found the Indian Premier League so lucrative, a successful tour would be very welcome; as for England, a cynic might speculate that with New Zealand next on the agenda it would have been most unfortunate had Pietersen missed a difficult tour of the subcontinent only to be perceived to rescue a struggling team against lesser opposition after Christmas.
If England are going down in India — and quite possibly they are — they will take Pietersen with them.
Of course, it would never suit the narrative of happy families for that to be said. Matt Prior, who was the sole member of the England dressing room to reach out to Pietersen in a telephone call at the height of the crisis last summer, was perfectly on-message prior to tomorrow’s Test.
Yet much of what he said was also true: for Pietersen’s return to be worth the trouble he must have the KP swagger of old. A reintegrated but subdued Pietersen is worse than no Pietersen at all, occupying a place with a shadow of his swashbuckling self.
‘We wouldn’t want KP to change so much because it is how he is that makes him so special as a player,’ said Prior. ‘If Kevin suddenly became this shy, introverted character I’d be more worried.
‘I want him to go out and express himself as he does. You only have to walk out around India, these guys have seen him play and they can’t wait to watch him bat again. Neither can I, to be honest. I’m glad that he’s come back the same as he was, because the most important thing is that this group all pulls in the same direction, and to have Kevin pulling with us makes us a far stronger team.
‘When does reintegration end? You’d better ask whoever came up with that word. I don’t really know, to be honest. All that matters to me is where the team are now. We start a Test match tomorrow: so we had better all be reintegrated then. All I can say is what I see. Kevin’s in our team, and our squad spirit is as good as it has been since I’ve been with England. I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting here, either.
‘There are certain things we’ve been doing in our net sessions, our training, our preparation, our thought processes that are very different from other England teams I have travelled with.
‘It was nice to get on the aeroplane and travel to the subcontinent with so many players who had been here before. What matters now is how we use that experience. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll get what you’ve always got, that’s one of the sayings in this team, so it is for us to adapt to this situation quickly.
‘I hope we can learn from previous experiences, even from playing badly on other tours, and take what we know now into these matches.
‘In tough situations it’s the team that wins big games or gets you out of a hole, not one or two individuals. Exceptional individual performances always help but ultimately the group will be stronger than any person.’
He didn’t name names. He didn’t have to. The reintegration is complete; whether Pietersen is re-educated remains to be seen. They still want him to blow that horn, you see. Just not quite so loudly. – Daily Mail