Rich irony in KP's return
So the sky didn’t cave in on South Africa or its cricket after the departure for permanent English pastures of one Kevin Peter Pietersen … 10 years on, I think we are entitled to pretty confidently draw that conclusion.
Pietersen, of course, abandoned the local game around a decade ago, pledging new loyalty to Nottinghamshire and later embarking on a successful England career which also turned him into immeasurably more of a celebrity than many might have imagined when he plied his SuperSport Series trade modestly as a 19-year-old with the KwaZulu-Natal Dolphins.
His suggestion, in his exit slipstream, that affirmative action considerations had impeded his South African development certainly ruffled feathers.
So there is a strong sense of irony that, rightly or wrongly, an unusually out-of-touch Pietersen will play two early-season SuperSport Series matches for his old province next month as he seeks to recapture his mojo in time for the Ashes defence in Australia.
Understandably, there may be those who contend that “KP” effectively bit a hand that once fed him by the relatively stormy manner in which he quit Kingsmead, and that it is a bit rich having him suddenly come home to nibble on a few, personally useful further crumbs.
Then again, audacity and swagger in the man has never in short supply, he is reportedly not being paid for his mini-sojourn, and Dolphins bosses have clearly taken a view that his larger-than-life presence – hats off, he has certainly evolved into a particularly thrilling player -- will act as a spur for a youthful-looking side.
(The possibility of extra bums on seats presumably did not really enter the equation for a competition where you are frequently able to saunter in through wide open stadium gates unchallenged.)
Pietersen’s first appearance is scheduled for the secondary Dolphins home venue of Maritzburg anyway (against the Warriors, October 7-10) and only the second one at Kingsmead (versus Titans, October 14-17).
But any irony for these occasions will not end there. For all his protests at the time, you see, the KwaZulu-Natal team Pietersen bade farewell too after the 1999/2000 summer remained notably “untransformed”.
By my calculation, his final SuperSport Series appearance that season came in a truly damp-squib Super Eight match (the competition was played on a more cumbersome basis then, featuring 11 teams in the initial phase) against Northerns in Durban in mid-January.
Only 54 overs were possible in the entire match, with no play at all on any of days two, three and four.
An all-white Northerns side duly compiled 139 for two, with Pietersen getting in just five overs (0/15) with his then supposedly main-trade off-spin.
There were precious few signs of a major “quotas” (as some like to term it) push in the KZN ranks, either – the only home-grown player of colour was Ahmed Amla, although the team did include West Indian stalwart Eldine Baptiste.
For interest’s sake, this was the home team, in likely batting order at the time, though they never did take to the crease: Mark Bruyns, Doug Watson, Ahmed Amla, Andrew Hudson, Dale Benkenstein (capt), Errol Stewart, Jon Kent, Ross Veenstra, Eldine Baptiste, Kevin Pietersen, Gary Gilder.
Yes, KP was the No 10: that had certainly been his batting station in the previous game, against Gauteng, where he registered a less-than-regal four and four, although that berth, in fairness, tends not to be one from which you build or even rebuild a team’s innings.
The Dolphins team Pietersen “guests” for pretty shortly will be light years more representative, when you consider that a 20-man squad announced for the campaign recently contains at least a dozen black players and Imraan Khan as captain.
Few truly familiar faces will greet Pietersen when he enters the dressing room, although Amla -- whom we also now know has a certain, indisputably world-class younger brother! – and Kent are still on the scene.
There is a forceful and encouraging emphasis on home-grown talent, which should soon bear good fruit, although long-time cynical observers of KZN cricket could argue with some conviction that the Dolphins are rather in the doldrums: they ended bottom of the SuperSport Series last summer, 55 points adrift of the title-winning Cape Cobras.
Mind you, KZN weren’t notably better during KP’s initial experiences for them: they ended a ho-hum fourth that year and had been second-last the year earlier (1998/99) – and that in a more expanded list of first-class teams.
Just as tellingly, though, the South African national landscape, certainly as far as Tests are concerned, was arguably less promising then than it is now: Australia remained very imperiously atop the pile a decade back, whereas the situation is altogether more fluid these days, with the Proteas potentially poised to seize top spot if they beat current leaders India at home this season and also prosper in the lead-up to that series.
Pietersen will briefly return to a cricketing environment featuring an ever-burgeoning crop of domestic talent nationwide, black and white alike, and resolutely not visited yet by any apocalypse.
If there is, indeed, some sort of lingering plot to thwart young white talent, then Pietersen is unlikely to receive any special thumbs-up on that from, for instance, David Miller, the hard-hitting Dolphins 21-year-old who has already earned four ODI caps and is being groomed for considerably more national appearances than that.
Warts ‘n all, welcome home, Kev …
Rob Houwing is Sport24’s chief writer and winner of the New Media category at the 2010 SAB Sports Journalist of the Year awards.
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