The king of bang, crash and wallop

Welcome to the age of Kevin Pietersen. He has bagged four man of the match awards in six games. There is no doubt about his success as a sporting show business personality and a cricket star,writes TED CORBETT.

HIS captain has called him a genius, his figures might cause Bradman to have a jealous twinge, his new low stance reminds historians of Gilbert Jessop The Croucher of the early 1900s and his showmanship makes him a favourite with kids and adults alike.

Kevin Pietersen is right at the start of his England career, not yet a Test player but a one-day master of such brutal hitting power that there is a groundswell of opinion in favour of ensuring he is first name on the team sheet for the five-Test Ashes series.

In a handful of one-day games he has made those who thought "KP" was a brand of snack food feel old-fashioned and killed off the idea that players from southern Africawere unwanted.

Even with Andrew Flintoff next to him in the batting order, Pietersen is the most popular cricketer in a country fixated on the return of the Ashes. This is the age of Pietersen and, happily, he has been welcomed into the fold by both players and spectators. "He is special, that young man," said Darren Gough, the veteran fast bowler enjoying a new lease of life as a one-day player, soon after the latest explosive exploits by this tousled haired, crouching 6ft 4in king of bang, crash and wallop. "Come on, Kevin," shouted the lads in the crowd at Bristol, as he thrashed the Australians with 61 runs off his last 28 balls and won his fourth man of the match award in six games. "Just one more, please" they squealed as he lashed his fourth six into the temporary stands where 6,000 spectators burned in the sun. "Kev, Kev, Kev," they screamed as they demanded his autograph.

There is no doubt about his success both as a sporting show business personality and a cricket star. It is all the more enjoyable because when he arrived on the England scene we were not quite sure what to expect.

By the time Pietersen, 24, had qualified for England, after four years playing for Nottinghamshire and had moved to Hampshire, the tales of his bragging and big hitting had gone round the county circuit.

It was also known that he had gone to Hampshire, the side with Shane Warne as captain and a moneybags chairman, because his girl friend had insisted he moved nearer London and that they had later quarrelled and split.

(Actually it was not much further from Nottingham to London than from Southampton but if you have a model girl friend you cannot expect her to have a degree in geography and road transport as well.)

His contract had run out at Trent Bridge although Pietersen and the committee seemed to have a new deal when his girl said that if he stayed in the grim, industrial Midlands she was going back to Australia and he changed his mind. So at the end of last season he was named in the one-day side for Zimbabwe — where England were not too sure what sort of a welcome this Robert Mugabe-led land would offer — as a Hampshire player.

His latest explosive exploits make him a kind of special in Team England.-CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES

Those of us who had watched the rise and rise of Kevin Pietersen held our breath. Would Pietersen turn out to be a boastful under-achiever, the lad who had paid to have a car with his name painted on the side so that he could ride round his native Pietermaritzburg showing off? Or would he deliver the goods and remain modest — to a degree — and a credit to the game? Could he handle his return to South Africa? Surely the Aussies would find him out.

In fact, apart from giving his hair a broad wave of off-yellow so that spectators would know who was holding that brilliant catch, the Pietersen behaviour pattern has been quiet, reserved and almost diffident.

Sure, he likes an over-the-top celebration but then the 21st century athlete from Tim Henman to Kelly Holmes — the news photograph of the year shows Dame Kelly enjoying her second Olympic gold medal — love to let the world know about their successes.

By those standards Pietersen has been almost subdued. And his batting is improving. Perhaps Warne has suggested a move or two; such as the crouch to avoid early dismissals against straight, full-pitched balls. More likely Duncan Fletcher has, in his cool way, hinted that a little more defence early in his innings and a wait before the big strokes are launched might help the Pietersen cause.

An old Test player who prefers to stay in the background has watched most of Pietersen's career and he is impressed with his technique since his winter tours and his big innings this summer.

"I was home to see most of his 91 against Australia. He did not play a false shot early on but it was at the death when the target was getting close and the Aussies were bowling pretty good yorkers all the time that he was managing to get his feet in the right position. Not just to stop the yorkers but to score from them. Not many can do that consistently."

Viv Richards used to say that if you can anticipate a yorker it can be turned into a low full toss and a boundary. Dare we mention Pietersen and the great Richards in the same breath? One day perhaps.

Pietersen despite been raised outside Britain is immensely popular with autograph hunters.-HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES

There is certainly no doubt that as he passes the age of 25 Pietersen is not yet the finished product but he has gone a mighty long way down the road since he joined the England squad. Whatever the reason, the results have been spectacular.

In his first 14 one-day internationals since the controversial tour of Zimbabwe last autumn, Pietersen has totalled 649 runs at 162.25. The breakdown goes like this: 27*, 77*, did not bat and in the four games in Harare and Bulawayo; 22*, 108*, 33, 75, 100*, DNB, 116 at various venues against South Africa last January and February; and a did not bat, and a 91* in the NatWest series against Australia and Bangladesh this summer. Those 11 innings have brought him 22 sixes and 49 fours. That is one-day cricket; what about the next move?

The England selectors have a serious problem. Their first six batting places ought in theory go to Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss, as opening batsmen, Ian Bell, the new boy but a Test star of the future beyond doubt, Michael Vaughan, the captain, Graham Thorpe in his last summer of Test batsmanship but an indispensable old head and Andrew Flintoff. Add Geraint Jones, the wicket-keeper, Ashley Giles, Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison and, probably, Simon Jones and you have a pretty strong, conventional line-up.

So where does Pietersen enter the equation. In place of Bell, who has done everything asked of him in three Test appearances? In place of Thorpe whose wisdom was learnt in 100 Tests? By leaving out Giles and fielding seven batsmen, including Flintoff, the all-rounder and three more fast bowlers?

Fletcher, the coach with a long line of credits behind him, is the big voice on the panel and he has seen the effect of Pietersen on the South Africans, who called him a traitor and conceded three centuries, and the Australians, who called him every little thing they could lay their tongues to, and conceded defeat.

What Pietersen taught the Australians at Bristol, as he hit an undefeated 91 off 68 balls and 61 off his last 28, is that they cannot underestimate him.

They have seen that he can launch good deliveries from yorker length into the crowd. They have seen he can defend, pick the right ball to hit and that he has so much power there is not a great deal of hope of a mishit being caught on the boundary.

He is mainly a legside player but one of his rocket-fuelled hits went into the crowd over extra cover. He can pick Brad Hogg's googly, keep out Glenn McGrath's yorker and he is not afraid either of a well-chosen insult or a short-pitched throat ball.

(Pietersen is also a good cricketer, a safe catch in the deep, with a quick, straight throw and a knack of picking the right end for his return and whether to go for a full toss to the keeper or bounce the ball back.)

I used to be one of the gang who detested the idea of the England team being full of foreigners and particularly southern Africans.

But life has changed. Kolpak rules, a European golf tournament in Beijing, a world championship of baseball confined to America, satellite television, big money sponsors, and an insistent demand by spectators and viewers to see the best play against the best have all turned sport from a cosy cabal into part of the global entertainment industry.

National pride now takes second place to packing in the spectators. The old values have gone, yesterday's definitions have gone and, besides, Kevin Pietersen, is the only man in the 21st century England team to have been raised outside Britain.

Pietersen thought he would not win a place in his own country's team so he joined Team England and the result might be the return of the Ashes.

We have waited so long for that reversal of fortunes that overlooking a minor inconsistency like the star being a South African is not going to worry the English cricket fans one jot.