The last Goodbye

Kevin Pietersen's career took a disastrous turn during England's 2013 Ashes tour Getty Images

Ostensibly thick-skinned, yet strangely vulnerable. Thunderously powerful, but prone to myopic weaknesses. And when witnessed in full majestic flow in his natural environment, he could stop even the most casual of observers dead in their tracks.

It's little wonder that Kevin Pietersen has such an affinity with the rhino, the beast that is self-evidently his spirit animal, and which now looks set to absorb, through his conservation efforts, the passions which propelled his extraordinary career.

Pietersen's retirement at the age of 37 comes as no surprise. He's been hinting at it all winter long, first at the Big Bash, and again before his departure for the PSL, and in both competitions, the sightings of his best form were as scarce as a watering hole in the Serengeti.

A rumbustious 74 from 46 balls here, a 34-ball 52 there - and precious little in between. Prized snapshots for the lucky few who happened to be present on those days, but mere echoes of the truest glories which built up his legend.

And now, finally, his career is no more - a fact that has drawn a generous smattering of eulogies from those who played with and, not least, against him, but understandably has not resonated quite as loudly as it would have done four years ago, prior to his excommunication from the very highest level of the game. His retirement came in several stages.

This day, of all days, let's not delve too deeply into the circumstances of that bleak and rancorous divorce - except to say that on Saturday the ECB's Twitter feed found the good grace (or the brazen front, depending on which side of the schism you stand) to utter, in public, the words "Thank you @KP24!", alongside a photo of his defining glory - that ludicrously unabashed century at The Oval in 2005, on the final day of the most compelling Ashes contest of all time.

And yes, shocking though it may seem to those who still loathe the ego, English cricket owes Pietersen a huge debt of gratitude. Like Brian Lara before him, his outlandish talents are diminished in some people's eyes by the fact that he wasn't always the easiest of men to play alongside, but if you try to take an overview of the eras to which each man belonged, your mind is sure to snap back like a bungee cord to specific moments of outrageous glory.

Bridgetown 1999 or Kolkata 2012; Sydney 1993 or Adelaide 2010. Lara's guillotine-crack through the covers or KP's flamingo-flick through wide mid-on. You simply cannot be a sports fan with a pulse and not be entertained by the audacity that such players brought to their game.

Unlike many of the game's greatest cricketers, neither Pietersen nor Lara appeared to have to sacrifice any style in producing careers of incredible substance. Sure, both could be guilty of playing one shot too many on more than a few occasions, and even KP was prone to go into his shell when needs must. However, each rightly calculated that the rewards of giving their genius full rein amply compensated for the sort of risks that, say, Steve Waugh or even Sachin Tendulkar could never have countenanced, or Alastair Cook or Allan Border - for all their granite-willed attributes - could never have pulled from their lockers in the first place.

And for Pietersen, never was that more apparent than during that first, and still unequivocally greatest Test century. September 12, 2005 was Judgment Day for English cricket. Australia's champions were down but not out, and even KP himself was briefly caught in two minds early in his innings, as the Aussies clawed with savage intensity for their urn, and would surely have reclaimed it had Warne at first slip not spilled a fateful edge.

But never mind that... chances come, chances go at all levels of cricket. How Pietersen responded to that moment of luck, on 15, would define both his own career, and those of an entire generation of English cricketers. Legend has it he asked his captain, Michael Vaughan, how to play it, as England, paralysed by anxiety, resumed after lunch on an extremely sickly 127 for 5, with more than 60 overs of the series still to come.

"Pietersen's natural game was revealed, gloriously, to be ego-fuelled Ninjutsu"

"Play your natural game," were Vaughan's orders. And there and then, Pietersen's natural game was revealed, gloriously, to be ego-fuelled Ninjutsu - 96mph bouncers from Brett Lee were there to be uppercut over fine leg; Glenn McGrath length balls were there to be flambeed back through the torso of the umpire. Within six overs the game had changed beyond recognition, and though it took several more hours for England to dare to believe, Pietersen's onslaught - 158 from 187 balls all told - had proven a paradoxically subtle point. Though volume of runs are a batsman's ultimate aim, sometimes the "how" is every bit as important as "how many".

Which leads directly onto the second fundamental reason for English cricket to be grateful for Pietersen's career. Sometimes, inevitably, his hubristic talents set him up for a pratfall - at Sabina Park in 2008-09, for instance, where he lined up a whip through midwicket but lost his off stump to Jerome Taylor, as England crumbled to a humbling 51 all out. Or at Cardiff five months later, when a hideous hoicked sweep against Nathan Hauritz opened the door to what, until a miraculous final-session escape, looked like being an Ashes-defining defeat.

But the strength of mind he showed to shrug off the catcalls and keep the shots coming was remarkable. "It's just the way I play," became Pietersen's stock retort on such occasions, and though he did temper his game to a degree during a mid-career lull, there's no questioning the influence that his natural attacking mindset had on two more of England's defining triumphs of the era.

The World T20 win in the Caribbean in 2010 remains England's only global one-day trophy and one that Pietersen's Man-of-the-Tournament performance put beyond the reach of all comers. And, for the Ashes win in Australia in 2010-11, in which Cook's rock-steady obduracy sapped Australia's will to live, it was Pietersen's frenzied double-century at Adelaide that flogged them into submission. In his very best performances, arguably only the inimitable Viv Richards displayed a greater ability to intimidate with a bat in hand.

And the lessons of Pietersen's attitude are apparent in another key aspect of England's modern-day approach, this time in one-day cricket. Under Eoin Morgan, a man of similarly independent mindset (and who, had he been allowed to do so, would have recalled KP for the disastrous 2015 World Cup), England have turned themselves into serious challengers for the next event in 2019.

And, if you listen very carefully to Morgan's brazen lack of apology on the occasions when his team's "express-yourselves" mentality has given way to an express-train wreck, you can almost hear his words being delivered in a slightly effete South African lilt.

There's an irony, too, in England's sudden willingness to embrace the lessons and lifestyles of the Indian Premier League. Though it was never explicitly acknowledged as the reason for the meltdown in relationships between Pietersen and England, the ECB's intransigence towards the tournament not only alienated their star player - who has always known his worth and knew what he was missing out on - it had ripple effects throughout the whole fabric of the English game.

Now, all of a sudden, England's players are flocking to the competition, lured by the life-changing sums of money, but also absorbing the extraordinary life lessons that can come from sharing a dressing-room with the world's very best talents, and performing in front of enraptured crowds on a thrice-weekly basis.

And that, fundamentally, was how Pietersen's agitations retained a credibility that your common-or-garden egomaniac could never have sustained, for he saw the IPL as a career progression rather than just a cash cow. As if to underline the old saw about genius being 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, there was no-one in the course of his ten-year England career who trained harder than he did, and few of his contemporaries spoke about the game with more compelling insight either.

"He made himself into a world-class batsman through the force of his own will, by refusing to accept any limitations on his technique, his opportunities, his geography or, ultimately, his modesty"

Take his justification, in the summer of 2006, for reversing his stance against Muttiah Muralitharan of all people, and slotting the first of his trademark "switch hits" into the stands at Edgbaston. In his end-of-day press conference, he explained, with patience and passion, how the angle of the delivery, and the lay-out of the field, with two men back for the conventional sweep but none on the ropes at extra cover, had turned an outrageous piece of skill into an obvious percentage option.

But of course, it could only be a percentage option due to the insane levels of preparation he was willing to put into his game. On the 2008 tour of New Zealand (to name just one nets sessions in a cast of thousands), thanks to the lay-out of the practice wickets at Hamilton, I was able to watch his entire session as if I was standing at silly point, and it remains to this day the most immersive experience of my career.

He was FIGJAM to his closest acquaintances - particularly those standing behind him in the opposition slip cordon - and there were moments throughout his career when even his most ardent apologists would struggle to defend his crassness. But Pietersen's glories and his failings were the flip side of the very same coin. He made himself into a world-class batsman through the force of his own will, by refusing to accept any limitations on his technique, his opportunities, his geography or, ultimately, his modesty.

In time, the gaucheness, the gripes, the potshots and resentments will fade away from the tale of Kevin Pietersen. Like those sightings of his spirit animal, the memories of his glories will mean all the more now that he is gone.