x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The self-interest of professional athletes now rings false

A Lord's Test match is always a special occasion, particularly when the combatants are the two best test sides in international cricket.

I was there on Thursday, along with 25,000 other expectant fans, for the first day of the match between England and South Africa; one to decide which team would top the world rankings.

But among the legions of ordinary punters and crusty old members in their trademark egg-and-tomato ties, there was one notable absence. Kevin Pietersen, the greatest South African ever to play cricket for England, was on a beach somewhere.

Just two weeks ago his absence from our national side would have seemed unthinkable. As well as being the most exciting batsman in the game, his contributions have been a crucial component in England's recent rising international fortunes.

He confirmed his status a mere two weeks ago at Headingly with an astonishing innings of 149 against his former countrymen.

But following revelations of tensions between him and both his England teammates and his employers at the ECB, Pietersen is now surplus to requirements.

The overriding sentiment among the crowd at Lord's was not one of disappointment at his absence, but rather one of acceptance bordering on relief.

For while the cricketing public may admire or marvel at Pietersen's genius, he has never been able to throw off the suspicion that his only ambitions are for himself.

Pietersen is the living embodiment of the modern sporting superstar: supremely gifted, self-obsessed and with a self-belief bordering on the narcissistic.

Indeed, in repose up on the England balcony in a cutaway T-shirt and Gucci wraparound shades, with a mobile phone clamped to his ear, he looks more like a refugee from Hollywood than anyone's traditional idea of a cricketer.

Born in Natal, he was once one of South Africa's brightest young talents, yet at the age of 20 he moved to the UK. Since then he has attempted (but never quite managed) to convince his new countrymen that he is as English as fish and chips.

But while he may kiss the national emblem of three lions on his helmet whenever he scores one of his frequent centuries, the suspicion has always remained that in contrast to many foreign-born cricketers who successfully make their home in the UK, his motives remain essentially expedient. Little wonder, perhaps, that his nickname in international circles is "The Ego".

Pietersen is no stranger to controversy, and relations with his adopted country have swung wildly between hubris and contrition. Already this season he'd caused controversy by trying to negotiate his contract with the ECB so as to cherry-pick his future appearances in England colours, a move he claimed angered many of his teammates who sensed his desire to cash in with a lucrative contract in the Indian Premier League.

Things finally came to a head this month when it was revealed he had sent derogatory texts about England coach Andy Flower and captain Andrew Strauss to his ex-countrymen in the opposition dressing room during the course of the current series.

Management may have bent over backwards to secure his continued participation in the past, but this act of treachery was too much.

Asked to clarify the messages, Pietersen claimed they were mere "banter between close friends", insisting he "didn't mean to cause upset". But the damage had been done. England takes team spirit seriously, and he had clearly stepped across the line.

At Lord's on Thursday there was little sympathy for him. And at the risk of sounding like a sentimental old fool, I wonder if the reason can be found in the London Olympics.

The Games had a sudden, seismic affect on the way we Brits regard sport and sportsmen, leaving the traditional behaviour of many professional superstars decidedly unfashionable.

The Olympic athletes revealed a different way to behave, combining modesty in victory and grace in defeat.

Sportsmanship and self-sacrifice are the new currency of sporting excellence, and the posturing egotism of individuals seems out of step with the national mood.

On holiday, Pietersen will have plenty of time to ponder such issues. And who knows? If his expressions of contrition for his recent conduct are to be believed, he may one day be welcomed back into both the England dressing room and the public's affections.

But I, for one, won't hold my breath. Whatever his former teammates say in public, behind dressing-room doors their reactions are more likely to mirror a comment by the US comedian WC Fields.

Informed by his studio bosses that a notoriously truculent co-star was "his own worst enemy", Fields replied grimly: "Not while I'm around he ain't."

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins