FORCEFUL BATSMAN AND A THINKER TO BOOT

AP

KEVIN PIETERSEN is a 21st century cricketer who will attract the kids, please the discerning adults and prove that you can have defiant hairstyles and still make Test centuries that compare with the greats, writes TED CORBETT.

What are we to make of that Kevin Pietersen then? Try putting a handle on him and you run into all sorts of complications. A simple slugger or a sophisticated batsman? Let's look at the facts.

It all began with the escape out of Africa when he and his father realised he was not going to walk into the national side because of the presence of so many young black players.

That decision landed him at Trent Bridge where the good folk of Nottingham did not know what to make of him. They found, for instance, that he was such a bad starter that a first ball duck was always a possibility.

You could not get a bet on that proposition in the crowd as he walked to the wicket because it was such a frequent event.

But if he did manage to survive for half a dozen balls it was pretty certain you were going to have a bucketful of entertainment.

Pietersen hit the ball to all parts of Trent Bridge — and a good many sectors of every other ground he played on — in the time he was a Notts batsman and in his final season his innings were a key factor as they won promotion to the first division.

So what happened that he left the club? It has such a high profile ground that it stages Test matches and 20 years ago Chris Broad moved there from Gloucestershire to give himself a better chance of playing for England.

The details of Pietersen's dispute with Nottinghamshire are only vaguely known but at one time it seemed he might stay. After a complete change of mind he moved to Hampshire where the chairman has pockets deep enough so that the club can employ Shane Warne and where, one has to assume, Pietersen has become a touch richer too.

No sooner had he settled down than the call for England came and those extraordinary one-day international innings in Zimbabwe and South Africa. His centuries off his former team-mates were the more notable since they were made in the face of comments about his treachery in moving to England often expressed in terms you would not want your grandmother to hear. By the end of that tour we knew we had a blossoming talent on our hands and it took no great stretch of the imagination to push him into the Ashes side last summer.

Appropriately Pietersen — already promoted under the initials "KP" — started at Hampshire's Rose Bowl — now his home ground — where he snatched three good catches that provided another contradiction.

By the end of the Tests he had spilled enough chances to have ensured the Ashes were won twice over but to his credit he produced a sensational innings in the final match of the series to ensure that little urn came back to England.

Shock and awe goes only part of the way to describe that innings and by the end he had ensured that the Ashes were England's and those who doubted Pietersen forgave him the dropped catches and his haircut.

Oh, yes, the haircut.

Throughout the summer he sported a hairstyle that might easily have sent some of the stuffier members of MCC to therapy classes. It consisted of a massive bow wave of blond through his dark hair and was known as a "skunk." Because it stank one can only assume.

The "get-a-hair-cut-young-man" brigade blamed his dropped catches and any innings in which he failed to score a double hundred on this appalling style error. I mean I can be as cool, up-to-date and modern as the next old man and I thought it was a huge mistake.

But what does that tell us as we try to understand this complex cricketer.

He has all the trappings of a Fancy Dan cricket. An affair with an older model girl during the Super Test series, the defiant hair-do, the ability to hit the ball from here to next week, a sweep shot through mid-wicket that I will swear he plays with top spin like a forehand drive at Wimbledon and an outrageous choice of words.

Instead of damning him let us also look at his batting technique, his all-round value as a cricketer, his work on the field.

His batting is, despite an occasional lapse, based on a correct defence and so far as I have seen in the last few weeks a concentration level that has cut out the first ball dismissal and frustrated every Indian bowler. An average in the mid-40s tells its own story and 80 runs a Test is more than the great batsmen expect to maintain.

Watch his running between the wickets. He is quick to see a run, he races down the pitch and his bat is always stretched towards the crease. He does not get run out.

In the field too — for all the five dropped catches in the Ashes Tests — he often sees a run-out opportunity quicker than any of his colleagues and he has the quickness over the ground and accurate throw to turn his speed of thought into at least a moment of doubt in the batsman's mind.

Pietersen is also a thinker. I went to a press conference of his recently where an Indian journalist asked if his violent shots against the spinners was a planned counter attack. His answer told you a lot about the man and his grasp of the needs of a top batsman.

"That is the way I play my cricket and I don't intend to change. I go after the spinners whenever I get the chance and I make no apologies for that." Earlier he had hit 17-year-old Chawla for four and six in the same over.

"I felt a bit sorry for the kid bowling today but I have to take my chances and if the ball is there to be hit I take it on." Pietersen is not yet the complete cricketer and we should remember that as he builds his reputation.

Here is a forceful, punishing, well organised batsman. Here is a 21st century cricketer who will attract the kids, please the discerning adults and teach the older, more staid followers of the game that you can have long hair, brightly coloured hair, change your hairstyle from blond streak to black all over and still make four-hour Test centuries that will bear comparison with all the greats.