A character that is Pietersen

Even though the England batsman describes himself tritely — "adventurous, fun, approachable, supportive, and ... daring" — he is one who challenges perception, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

In the recent second Test against an emaciated West Indies at Leeds, Kevin Pietersen leapt, a gormless smile forming, and punched the air. Only, it wasn't his century he was celebrating — that would follow; it was his skipper Michael Vaughan's, his mate Vaughanny's. Michael Henderson, writing in the Guardian, called it an "unconvincing spectacle" — this "can I be your best friend?" business — but it wasn't the first time Pietersen was suspected of reflecting in celebrity's pale light. Through the Ashes, both in 2005 and in 2006-07, cameras that cared to pan to the English dressing room invariably found KP: KP telling a joke, KP laughing at a joke, KP clapping a century, KP pondering a cuppa, KP reading the newspaper, KP pulling his team-mates into a hug.

If Pietersen hadn't been scoring vigorous, game-turning runs at a rate per match only Don Bradman bettered for any batsman in his first 25 Tests, he could have been dealt with easily. To English fans, he would have been Ronnie Irani version 1.1, all show, no go, the South African boy who would forever be an outsider. They would have gone back to their team of blanched professionals, among who even the rarest of talents usually express themselves plainly, as only the English can. For every instance of Vaughan referring to himself in the third person and Andrew Flintoff testing a pedalo's buoyancy, there's an Ian Bell and a Steve Harmison droning on. But, Pietersen challenges perception. Even if he did describe himself tritely — "adventurous, fun, approachable, supportive, erm, and ... daring".

Sir Vivian Richards, when asked during the World Cup about Pietersen, spoke not of his batting, but his personality. "He's a character and the game now needs characters," said Richards. "He looks to intimidate. He's the kind of guy you pay to watch." The transition Richards made from the personality to the batsman is interesting, for it isn't clear-cut. One didn't press the point — Richards had other things on his mind. But he said individuals needed to express themselves naturally — can it then be suggested that batting derives from the self? It makes Pietersen's case intriguing. There is much about Pietersen — the pop-star girlfriend, the blurb on his autobiography (Pietersen is cocky and confident. I love it. — Geoffrey Boycott), the tattoo of the English lions — that seems forced, fashioned. Rachel Cooke, in the Observer, writes as much, referring to Pietersen's "outstanding charmlessness". Shouldn't his batting reveal it? Shouldn't it let on that it's manufactured? Peter Roebuck thinks it does.

Roebuck dismisses the comparison with Richards, who too played across his front pad creating his own leg-stump line, and writes Richards was a natural; Pietersen isn't.

Roebuck presents as evidence Pietersen's poor catching — no natural would drop as many, he writes. It's a difficult case to make, for definitions are messy. What does being a natural entail? Superior hand-eye co-ordination? A certain kinaesthetic ability to move swiftly and effortlessly into position? Or an absence of conscious thought? Pietersen can argue a convincing case on the first two grounds — he has pick-axed Brett Lee to leg, and for a man who is a spindly-strong six-feet four, he keeps his limbs about him and moves well; and he might persuade a jury to see that conscious thought can't ever be entirely absent. Did Roebuck's perception of Pietersen the personality colour at a subliminal level his analysis of Pietersen the batsman?

Curiously, it's the perception of talent that links Pietersen with Marat Safin, not that they are both `characters'. Those who saw the 20-year-old Safin reduce Pete Sampras to irrelevance in the final of the 2000 US Open had little doubt he was touched by the gods. Seldom had they seen such heft of stroke. Sampras called it the tennis of the future, but Safin wasn't convinced. Even, when he had beaten Roger Federer in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open, when everyone averred he was the second-best physical talent of the era, Safin was reluctant to accept the favourable comparison. Federer was without flaw, his feel was exceptional, Safin said; he himself was probably more powerful, but had "well-covered holes", deficiencies that he could work around. Rarely has a player so vehemently denied the extent of talent.

Where Pietersen has clothed himself in layers of celebrity, Safin has stripped it off his person. "I cannot stand the word `celebrity' and anything that it might imply," Safin once said. "It's total nonsense. When someone calls a person a celebrity, it's like they are trying to turn him into a robot. And I am a human being." Where Pietersen comes across as uninspiring in his interviews (the only point of interest he made in Small Talk, Guardian's delightfully irreverent one-on-one interview format, was that Andrew Strauss dressed like a public school boy), Safin comes across as intensely human. "I look at the photos and feel ashamed," said Safin of the days when he hadn't the money for a suit and a white shirt. "Then when I started earning money I obviously wanted to look good. And now when I can buy anything I want, my passion for chic clothes has vanished."

Pietersen's cricket is a product of original thought; but, never on record has he called clowns "repugnant", as Safin did, or said the classics in literature have "the same nonsense that's in you." Safin's intelligence is often self-flagellating.

The words that capture his essence are not Dostoevsky's but Tolstoy's: "That's always the way with us Russians. It may be a virtue — the ability to see your own shortcomings — but we carry it too far and console ourselves with the irony that is always on the tip of our tongues". After an early exit at the French Open, Safin said he might retire for it "would be sad to live with being a struggling player". The emotion it prompted confirmed why he wouldn't be forgotten. Some athletes convince us to invest so much of ourselves that it's impossible to let go. Pietersen hasn't — yet; Safin has.

Quote hanger MARAT SAFIN

"I'm not like Roger. He has all the skills. Even when he is not playing well, he has enough feeling, enough talent to be able not to show it." .

"I said I have a lot of respect for Italians because they are the most talented people on the planet. Probably the Vatican has a direct line with God. That's why they are the chosen ones and the country is running with no work, good for them."

"McEnroe, why did they watch him, why do they love him? That guy, he was breaking rackets all the time, he was shouting at everybody. And you know what, he's actually a great guy, not a jerk, and everybody knew it."

"The problem is a deficit of really good coaches in our sport. They're all accounted for, hunted for. Good specialists who used to be players don't want to submit their life to another, to step in the shadow of another."

KEVIN PIETERSEN

"I don't want to be the next Viv Richards, I just want to be Kevin Pietersen, the best Kevin Pietersen can be."

"Jess (Jessia Taylor) does not influence the way I perform on a cricket field, and I think it has never been a hindrance having the families around. We don't get a lot of time with our family and it is ridiculous that they say partners are a problem. I believe that is a load of nonsense."

"It does hurt when people say that because I'm a massive team player."