Roger Alton

Spectator Sport | 21 June 2008

KP's Caper

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I used to play squash with a distinguished veteran film critic, currently plying his trade on the London Evening Standard. I would force the ball to his backhand but the diminutive master of cinema would simply flick his racket from his right hand to his left and smash it back past me as a forehand drive. He was a keen cricketer too, but I don’t think he ever tried to do what Kevin Pietersen did to a bemused Scott Styris up in Durham on Sunday.

The hoo-hah about Pietersen’s astounding switch-hit has been wondrous. Is it within the laws? (Yes, for now.) Is it within the spirit of the game? (Hmmm.) Can anybody do it? (Come off it.) Rule-book obsessives can speculate that if the bowler had a couple of slips and a backward point, it would then be a no-ball because three men are behind square on the leg side. What about lbw? And can the bowler go wide outside the leg stump, now the off stump of course, without it being called wide? Could the bowler stop when he sees it happening, and reset the field? Then reset again as the batsman goes back to right-handed? And so on theoretically until umpire Darrell Hair calls the game off and awards it to whoever he likes. It’s fun, isn’t it?

MCC president and all-round good guy of cricket, Mike Brearley, doesn’t want it outlawed. He thinks the stroke was a touch of genius, as it clearly was, and should be accommodated, as it was by the MCC rules boys this week. Had Pietersen played the shots on a heady night in Bangalore, say, in a 20/20 game for the IPL, for which he is so clearly destined, you can’t imagine him attracting any criticism — just the love of all India and a lifetime supply of Kingfisher ale. On the other hand, as Michael Holding observed, it takes skill and nerve to rob a jewel safe, but that doesn’t make it right.

It seems highly unlikely that anybody other than Pietersen could do it — the shot comes from an awesome level of hand-eye co-ordination and extraordinary power. Plus, he’s bloody good. Pietersen’s a funny chap though: he’s not the most self-effacing guy in world cricket, and has recently taken to issuing pronouncements on the future of the game. It’s impossible not to admire his astonishing brilliance as a player, but whether he’ll ever be loved like, say, Sir Beefy, is another matter. But full respect to someone who once described his homeland, South Africa, as a great country with great people... and a magnificent exchange rate.

Anyway it’s a rich seam of joy in what is an unbelievably brilliant summer. At about the time KP was going bonkers, and shortly before Tiger Woods and the fabulous Rocco Mediate slugged it out in the greatest golf tournament ever, Rafael Nadal was coming back from 3-0 and 40-0 down on his own service in the Queen’s final against the fearsomely gifted Novak Djokovic. What a fighter Nadal is. What an athlete. And what a charmer: he is always jaw-droppingly delightful after matches and I loved the easy way he invited a Times photographer into the changing rooms last week.

It makes Wimbledon even more tasty than ever now. If the Federer era isn’t actually over, then it’s certainly looking a little sickly. Much as we love Rog, this feels like Nadal’s year. And with a bit of luck, it will be Ana Ivanovic’s too. The lissom Serb temptress and newly installed international fashion model is getting guidance and coaching from another of sport’s good guys, Avram Grant, so good luck to her.

It’s too much to hope for, but it would be cheering this weekend if Lewis Hamilton, on his way to the French Grand Prix at Magny- Cours, stopped at a red light on the Paris périphérique and was promptly smacked up the arse by a soignée French woman in a 4x4. Then perhaps he’d know what Kimi Raikkonen felt like the other day in Montreal.