Nowhere on Earth could have made a more appropriate venue than Sandton in Johannesburg for Kevin Pietersen’s reunion with the England team after his four months away from active service.
Four years ago Sandton was the home of affluent naffness, where everything was artificial from the light to the blondes, a shopping and business complex that made Las Vegas look tastefully refined.
That was when Pietersen announced himself with a similar attempt at self-aggrandisement, scoring three centuries in the one-day series against South Africa with a white streak in his hair.
Now Sandton is not quite so artificial and keen to impress, and neither is Pietersen. Which is just as well because England’s plan is not to give him any chance to impress in the Twenty20 internationals against South Africa on Friday and Sunday, but to ease his right Achilles heel back into action in the 50-over warm-up game next Tuesday at Potchefstroom, then in the five one-day internationals.
Four years and more on, Pietersen at 29 is a bit cagier – less artless – than he was at the start of 2005, and with natural hair. Yesterday, when he was asked how his Achilles heel had become infected after the operation in July, he was reticent to the verge of diplomatic: "I do know how it came about, but I’ll leave that to the end of my career. I’m out here now to forget about that."
Pietersen arouses strong responses; many are the interpretations of his character. The closest perhaps is the one that sees him as a Labrador that has been kicked by its previous owner. The excesses stem from his desperation to be wanted and to please.
"I’m feeling good, really good, excited," was how he summed up his mental state, but his physical state could not be given quite such a bill of health. He felt his Achilles on the flight out. "I’m physically fit to play cricket but can’t rush things. I’ve spent the last six weeks in the gym to get as fit as I possibly can but I’ve still got a bit to go."
Even when talking about gyms, he had to name-drop: in this case the Chelsea Harbour Club. But if the ego is born of insecurity, it is being tempered by age and marriage. Besides, there is room for someone in England’s dressing room who insists on behaving like top dog, now that Andrew Flintoff has gone.
Pietersen said he had spoken to Jonathan Trott after the Oval Test, and again yesterday morning, to pass on his advice about being a native South African qualified to represent England.
"I’ve experienced in the last five years what he could potentially experience in the next five years. But I won’t go and force myself on him." Pietersen admitted he had made mistakes in his personal development but again, with growing diplomacy, did not specify.
Will there be a personality clash of like poles repulsing if Trott and Pietersen bat together in England’s 50-over and Test sides, as they surely will? "He played for Western Province and I for Natal when there was a real rivalry between the teams," Pietersen admitted. But Trott is not ostentatious: in his two innings so far, Trott has not raised an audible boo.
Pietersen, on the other hand, stirred a storm here in 2005. As Michael Vaughan records in his highly illuminating new autobiography Time to Declare about Pietersen joining him at the crease in Johannesburg: "I stood there watching this lad with a racoon hairstyle walking out to a deafening cacophony of boos. He loved the occasion and the scrap."
Pietersen confirmed the cacophony. "First time it was pretty hostile but when I’ve been back here I’ve had fantastic receptions." He also said that his wife, Jessica, would join him a couple of times on this tour, unlike the last one in the West Indies.
"And he also, rather surprisingly, lavished praise on someone else he regularly texts: "I truly believe Jacques Kallis is the greatest cricketer ever – he’s made 10,000 Test runs and taken 250 wickets."
After his interviews Pietersen went to the Wanderers for his first outdoor net since July, while his team-mates had to do weight-training in their Sandton hotel. This seemed appropriate too. At his best Pietersen bats as though everyone else is weighed down.
He had some throw-downs from England’s coach Andy Flower, then a net against local clubbies and the bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed. On Thursday Pietersen will have to see what the reaction is, but he still batted pretty well.
Safer in fact to bowl against Pietersen any day than Kallis, for Pietersen can take any bowling apart, and has done so against the best.
© The Telegraph Group, London, 2009