By Rob Barnett
Kevin Pietersen is England’s best player of all time, Michael Vaughan has told ecb.co.uk as the batsman prepares for his 100th Test cap in Thursday’s Ashes opener.
Vaughan gave Pietersen England debuts in all three formats: in a one-day international with Zimbabwe in November 2004, a Twenty20 international versus Australia in June 2005 and an Ashes Test a month later.
Pietersen has exhibited his extraordinary batting talent in each form, but it is in Tests that he has excelled most. The flamboyant right-hander boasts the highest Test batting average of England’s current crop: 48.38 on the back of 7,887 runs, including 23 centuries.
Vaughan, who scored 18 Test tons, led Pietersen until the end of his international career in 2008 and now watches the mercurial batsman in his capacity as a member of England’s travelling media.
Speaking exclusively to ecb.co.uk, Vaughan said: “I would pick him out as the best, not in terms of technique, but if you asked me which England player would I pay to watch more than any other in my time watching the game, it would be Kevin Pietersen. I just love watching him bat; I like his approach.”
Vaughan, a forthright Yorkshireman, initially stopped short of calling Pietersen, now 33, England’s finest player of any type, but soon shared his view.
“England have had great, great players and great batsmen. It’s not necessarily that I’m saying he’s the greatest ever England player, but I actually think he is,” he added.
“It seems to upset people when you pinpoint one, but I definitely think he is the one England player that I would pay to watch more than any other.”
Vaughan was aware of a rare talent during Pietersen’s period qualifying to represent England while playing county cricket.
On giving Pietersen an international chance, Vaughan immediately saw a player that could challenge Australia’s domination and told England coach Duncan Fletcher so.
“I got him in the one-day team when we went out to Kenya and Zimbabwe just to have a look at him,” Vaughan recalled.
“As soon as I saw him after day one I went to Fletch and said: ‘We’ve got to have him in the Test team. As soon as he qualifies get him in. He’s the absolute perfect player to take on Australia because of his aggression'.
“I wanted players who could take on (Shane) Warne and (Glenn) McGrath and attack them rather than just defend against them. As soon as I saw his game I knew that he would potentially be able to do that.
“It was a no-brainer for me to get him straight back in and straight in for his Test debut at Lord’s. Even though it was a big series I just felt it was the right approach and the right justified gamble to give him his debut and give him a chance.”
Vaughan’s confidence in Pietersen by the time of the 2005 Ashes was based on a series of stunning ODI innings.
The previous winter Pietersen had performed brilliantly in front of hostile South African crowds, angry he had chosen England, including hundreds at Bloemfontein, East London and Centurion.
Pietersen proved he could be just as dangerous against Australia, striking a stunning 65-ball 91 not out in victory at Bristol a month before the Ashes.
“He arrived to a chorus of boos at the Wanderers - he was affected for a brief second or two - but in that series he smashed the South Africans all over the place, scored a couple of great hundreds,” Vaughan recalled.
“The one-day series before the Ashes in ‘05 was very, very important for the team to gather some momentum and he smashed (Jason) Gillespie all over the place at Bristol.
“So it was an easy decision in the end to pick him, but to be able to do what he did from ball one in international cricket, attack quality bowlers, which he was doing, the likes of (Shaun) Pollock, (Dale) Steyn, you knew he had a huge career ahead of him.
“I liked his temperament and mentality. I like people that are a bit different, a bit out there, a bit wacky. I think you need those kind of characters in your dressing room, the showbiz players.”
Pietersen announced himself in Tests with fifties in his first three knocks, but it was the series-winning 158 that Vaughan rates as one of his best.
“In ‘05, that innings at The Oval was special, the pressure that he was under - that we were under as a team - that attack that he faced, that great Australian team was incredible,” Vaughan explained.
“I think the hundred that he scored against India last year in Mumbai was a brilliant innings. On a real turning pitch he made them look pretty average. The hundred at Headingley against South Africa that same year, he made Dale Steyn look like a medium-pacer for half an hour.
“He’s had some absolutely incredible innings, he really has. He’s one of the few players in the world that you really would like to watch bat.
“Pietersen in the last 10 years has been right up there with the best to watch. As soon as he goes to the crease, now that I commentate, he’s one that you get excited about. Your voice just changes because you’re commentating on someone that can do the extraordinary.”