Thursday, 24 December 2009

Pietersen relaxed about the boos flowing on Boxing Day

KEVIN PIETERSEN is hoping the festive spirit will prevail at Kingsmead (above, with my Hilton Hotel looming behind the main stand) on Saturday and that the Christmas boos will have dried up by the time the Boxing Day Test starts in Durban.

In fact, the pre-Christmas spirit, with the wives and girlfriends now in the England hotel, is so strong, Pietersen even held out an olive branch to South African captain Graeme Smith, insisting: “He’s turned into a really nice guy.”

You can almost hear the “Ho, ho, ho” as he prepares to play back where it all began for him in 1999 where he got 61 not out and four wickets for the Natal Dolphins against Nasser Hussain’s England tourists. Apparently that was the day he contacted the England officials and said he was interested in switching allegiances.

Michael Vaughan, on his first tour at the time, later suggested Yorkshire should sign him, but he ended up with Nottinghamshire, then Hampshire. And the rest is history.

Given his roots in Pietermaritzburg, about 40 miles inland, his return to this humid Indian Ocean port beneath an England cap could yet be greeted with a tirade of abuse from Kingsmead’s notorious Castle Corner.

I am currently about 200 yards from there in room 111 of the Hilton Hotel (above, it overlooks the ground) with the Living With The Lions tour party, led by the fabulously friendly Brett (see their link on this page). I've got Graeme Smith and the South Africans in the same hotel while England are 10 miles north up the coast in the Oyster Box in Umhlanga. Should be an interesting Christmas with the Proteas in the hotel bar! It's cloudy but muggy in Durban, which is packed to the rafters judging by my time in the downtown traffic jams today.

We can expect a huge crowd on Saturday, this is summer holiday time in Durban, but after his two fine knocks of 40 and 81 in the drawn first Test at Centurion were greeted with polite applause, Pietersen i s hoping he – and fellow South African-born Englishmen Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior and Andrew Strauss – are over the worst of the abuse.

Not that it gets to him of course. He said: "I don't mind the booing. The opposition get a fair amount of stick when they tour a country and that happens when Australia come to us.

"As long as good cricket is respected, I don't mind. I don't mind being abused on the boundary. I don't mind any of that stuff.

"When you field for 240 overs like we did in the First Test, it can be quite boring so it's fun to have some interaction with the crowd.”

Widely reviled by when he first appeared in his mother country as an Englishman during the one-day series in 2005, Pietersen, 29, says: "I have a fantastic relationship with the South African players, I don't have a single problem on the field.

"I have played with Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn in the IPL. And Graeme Smith has calmed down and turned into a really good guy.

“The only thing I don't like is when people swear and abuse you when there are kids around. I've had to ask the stewards to speak to the people concerned.

"A couple of times on this tour, kids have been waiting on the boundary for an autograph and people are swearing at me. That's not great.

"I'm not just saying it because I'm going to be a father - I never swear in front of kids."

Another man who started out in that tour match between the Dolphins and England in 1999 was a 16-year-old Hashim Amla.

Though over-shadowed by KP a decade ago, it was Amla’s patient ton in Centurion which ensured South Africa had worked their way into an unbeatable position by the end of day four.

And when he reached his century, his old Natal team-mate Pietersen was there to shake his hand. Amla, who dismissed his first century at Lord’s saying: “I’ve always thought Durban was the home of cricket,” may not be as prominent in the headlines as Pietersen, but he forms a vital part of the South African resistance movement.

Yet to score a hundred at his home ground, the generously-bearded Amla, a devout Muslim unlikely to pick up Gillette or Castle Lager as personal sponsors, grins: “Of course I would love to score a Test ton at Kingsmead, but I don’t look too far ahead.

“I’m just concerned about the process of batting, focusing on each ball as it comes, doing my job.

“If you start thinking too far ahead, you upset that process.”

Often criticised for his awkward stance and stolid approach, the happily low-key Amla, born in Durban to a family from Gujarat, adds: “So long as I score runs, nobody will say anything. But when I got through a bad patch, I expect the same old comments to come out.”

England are set to field an unchanged side on Boxing Day, with coach Andy Flower refusing to axe the off-form Ian Bell for an extra seamer in Ryan Sidebottom. South Africa are still waiting for a final verdict on Dale Steyn’s hamstring.

The world’s top-ranked Test bowler withdrew at the last minute before the first Test but Amla, who could yet become South Africa's first non-white captain, argues: “Dale Steyn’s return is the key for us. He brings so much experience to our bowling unit. But we aren’t worried about that. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

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