Champions come in many kinds. There are those of such outrageous talent and extraordinary genius that greatness is undeniable to them, regardless of what they do outside their playing arenas – the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Tiger Woods. Then there are those whose brilliance of play on the field combines gracefully with their elegance of conduct off it to push them into greatness – the likes of Rahul Dravid and Roger Federer. And finally, there is the third kind, perhaps the most intriguing of them all – the mavericks. Their genius is sometimes erratic but undeniable. They are the players who dazzle you, players who leave you in awe, and players who can, if only on occasions, turn matches and tournaments single-handedly. These are the people you pay to watch. The Pietersens and the Safins.
Much has been written and talked about the first two, of their genius, character and dedication, but let’s talk about the mavericks for today. After all, they give us so much to talk about. Greatness is a word that you use carefully around them, for the word, in many versions of its definition, demands longevity, and a maverick is a flickering flame, one whose end you can never predict.
When Mike Atherton referred to Pietersen as a great player, Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand captain, asked him “A great player or a player of great innings?” There is a difference, a significant difference. While what defines sporting greatness is in itself a profound debate, there is a threshold for consideration, and your everyday maverick, for all his flashing brilliance, doesn’t make the cut. But there are those rare ones; mavericks who can summon their gifts more often than others, sometimes even at will and often on the biggest of occasions. History remembers them as fondly as the fans for they leave the game a lot richer, add enough sparkle to draw new crowds and their effect on them is invigorating.
The story of a maverick, though, is not always one with sunshine and roses. His genius is often accompanied by quirks. If you are lucky these quirks are tolerable, maybe even endearing, but more often than not they are annoying and frustrating. It is for this reason that the maverick has a far easier time in an individual sport like tennis or golf than he does in cricket or football. But he, however, isn’t unheard of; history is studded with irritable, inconsistent but astonishing talents making their mark on the greatest of teams on the biggest of stages. And there is perhaps no greater story than that of Kevin Pietersen’s in our times, of a maverick who crossed the threshold to greatness and perhaps even stood on the brink of a heroic legacy.
His is a tale of adapted nationalities and mingled loyalties, of unparalleled greatness and unspeakable shame; all of it set against an inspired backdrop of burning passion and an unquenchable desire to prove his place. He was, in every sense of the word, a maverick. An individual with such great gifts that he seldom had control. There must have been a part of him, the more mortal one, that demanded of him to be subdued, to play along and live by the rules, and it showed too on occasions, like the times when he went through the despicably named ‘reintegration course’ to earn his place back in the English team. But in the end it was never enough, for the maverick values more than anything else his individuality, an expression of the fleeting invincibility of his talent.
It is often easier for teams to find ways to live around their mavericks than to expect their spirits to be kindled in the everyday trivialities of team meetings and practice sessions. And for years the English team did this well, to find ways to get along with his unpredictability, to hide their frustrations and resentment, and perhaps for some of them, even to like him. On the long run, the runs made it all worth it. That in many ways is the essence of this delicate relationship; the greater the talent, the greater the tolerance you have towards the antics. A maverick that’s only promising, you bear a little, tinker a bit and then you get rid of, but a talent like Pietersen, the highest run getter for England across all formats and their most prolific batsman, you wait a long time, a very long time. It was because of this that when Tuesday brought the news of him being sacked, it came as a surprise.
At 33, you can hardly argue he is past his prime, and in what was for them a colossal disaster Down Under, a terribly out of form Pietersen was still their best batsman. Sometime along those dark days in Australia, in the swanky boardrooms of the Lord’s, faceless suited men, there by the sheer virtue of wealth and power, must have decided that the maverick had crossed that line, the one that separates the irritable asset from the disposable hindrance. And that is such a shame.
We watch the maverick as much for his fall from fame as his rise to glory. There is in some way a very sadistic pleasure that we derive from the reality of his demise. We convince ourselves that for all his renown and wealth, we are in some twisted way entitled to derive pleasure from his vulnerability.
A maverick’s end, to be fair, is much more intriguing than that of an ordinarily great athlete. The best of athletes grapple with time, with weakened limbs and slowing reflexes. There is a part of them that whispers into their weary hearts that deep inside there still lives the invincible athlete and that they just have to find him. They know it isn’t easy, they know it doesn’t last long, but for that final shot at glory, it doesn’t need to last long. Just the two weeks on the green grass in June-July, Federer tells himself. They are reluctant to let go of what has been theirs for a lifetime. The lucky among them can do it for one final time and leave on the high that they are accustomed to, while the rest grudgingly come to terms with their mortality and make peace with age. The ending itself is often graceful and filled with gratitude.
But a maverick’s battle isn’t as much with time as it is with himself. The gift at a point becomes harder to summon, and when arrived, it disappears without warning. He can spend hours in the nylon cages of the cricket nets but might never rediscover his genius. He begins to get frustrated, for he doesn’t understand the change; it isn’t the limbs and it isn’t the reflexes. One day it’s there and the next day it’s gone. Poof. Just like that.
And on one of those evenings of frustration, he begins to doubt himself, and at that moment, the clock starts ticking. To a maverick, that is the start of his demise, and the beginning of a self-destruct sequence. It is tremendously hard, impossible even, for him to acknowledge that he no longer possesses the very thing that made him special, the very idea around which his whole individuality was based. He hangs around, playing here, playing there, hoping that it will come back to him. Eventually, a few of them, very few, recognize that it has passed and are thankful for when they held it, while others, still enchanted, keep searching right into the sporting twilight, when their careers end in the dingy corners of a weekday newspaper.
As for Pietersen, we will never know. A nation that was happy to have him in spite of all his inadequacies in the days of his glory and a board that was happy to sell his name to eager fans to fill their coffers, today, abandon him without cause, and that’s a disgrace. Amongst all the hushed tones and confidentiality clauses, you can’t help but wonder if he is being made a scape goat. How does it become one man’s burden when eleven men fail to bowl out and outscore the opposition? The most logical explanation, of course, would be that the senior players and the management, themselves fearful of their jobs after a humiliating tour, offered up the one man that the media would heartily devour.
Looking back though, Pietersen never belonged in England anyway. It was a nation that thought it was doing him a favor by offering a home and a place in the eleven while the truth is that he could have walked into any eleven in the world. They took the victories that he brought with gladly yet questioned his loyalty and commitment every time they failed as a team. Perhaps he will be better off without an England contract, free to express and explore in places where he will be appreciated and where angry tweets are just angry tweets and not acts of treason. He will still be frustrating and he will continue to cause problems, but he will also win games and bring crowds, only this time nobody questions his loyalties. He has, at last, away from the confines of a central contract and the shackles of unreasonable media, the freedom to be a true maverick, the quirks, the genius and all.