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Kevin Pietersen plays at his best when no one gives him a chance. In Mumbai, he was unstoppable
March 11, 2013
Best Test batting performanceKevin Pietersen
As the chasm between Kevin Pietersen and his colleagues widened towards the end of the 2012 English season, he memorably complained that "it isn't easy being me" in the England dressing room. But whatever the difficulties behind the scenes, there were times on the pitch when it looked preposterously easy to be him.
Some will never warm to him. They will question his motivation, his commitment and his loyalties. They will dislike his accent, his perceived brashness and, perhaps, his commercial success. But to deny him a place among the greats of cricket in the face of such evidence is like disregarding Picasso's worth as an artist because he was occasionally rude to waiters.
Pietersen's century in Mumbai was ridiculous. It was ridiculous in its audacity, ridiculous in its range of strokes and ridiculous in the way it flouted conditions and conventions. This was a wickedly turning surface on which England's spinners, tormenting batsmen renowned as fine players of slow bowling, claimed 19 wickets. It was a wicket on which only Alastair Cook, of Pietersen's colleagues, could pass 29 in the first innings, and a wicket on which only one man in India's second innings passed 11. Yet Pietersen created the illusion that he was operating on a batting paradise. While others prodded with the uncertainty of travellers lost in fog, he played every shot in the coaching manual and a good many more besides. It was, in short, a ridiculously good innings.
Many had thought it was an innings that could never be played. So entrenched were the opposing sides after the "text-gate" debacle that it seemed for a while as if Pietersen's international career might be over. He was dropped after the Leeds century, after all, and from the England World Twenty20 squad despite having been Man of the Tournament when they won it. By the time he stepped out to bat in Mumbai, they were real doubts that he could ever be successfully "reintegrated" into the England environment.
Neither England's or Pietersen's record in Asia offered much encouragement, either. England had only won one Test in India since winning the 1984-85 series and, excluding Bangladesh, just two of their last 23 Tests in Asia since the series victory in Sri Lanka of 2000-2001. They had lost five of the six Tests played in Asia in the year to that point, and Pietersen had been dismissed 25 times by left-arm spinners in Tests since the beginning of 2008, including two cheap dismissals in the previous Test, in Ahmedabad, by Pragyan Ojha. What is more, this pitch had been tailor-made for India's spinners and England had lost the toss. When Pietersen came to the crease, England had just lost two wickets for two runs and were in danger folding once again against an energised spin attack that sensed blood.
The jury says
But while most players perform at their best in an environment where they feel appreciated and valued, Pietersen seems to reserve his best for moments when he is doubted. Just as his century in Leeds had been produced as the relationship between him and his team-mates crumbled, his century in Mumbai came when his playing record in such conditions was under scrutiny and his position within the squad appeared fragile.
Pietersen later remarked that the key difference between his performance in Mumbai and Ahmedabad was a renewed confidence in his defence, following some technical work he undertook between games. While in the first Test he had reacted to uncertainty by looking to premeditate or charge down the wicket to negate the spin, here he demonstrated the technique and temperament to defend, wait and build. He used his long reach. He played straight - initially, anyway - and he trusted himself to come through the inevitable tough periods without resorting to a reckless counterattack. In such determined mode, Pietersen's batting has an ominous inevitability to it.
So while he was quickly into his stride against the offspin of Harbhajan Singh, easing his first delivery - a friendly half-volley well outside off stump - to the boundary, he was, initially at least, more cautious against the left-arm spin of Ojha. Pietersen scored just one run from his first eight deliveries against Ojha, and when he did feel confident enough to attack the spin, limited himself to driving through extra cover in conventional style. Even when Ojha returned for a second spell after Pietersen had passed 50, he was content to play out two maidens and scored just four runs in 28 balls from the bowler.
The investment in a cautious start paid a handsome dividend, though. By the time Ojha bowled to him again, on the third day, it was too late. Pietersen was irrepressible, unstoppable and quite masterful. A glorious passage of play contained a medley of Pietersen's greatest hits: the slog sweep, the reverse sweep, the scoop, the cover drive, the cut and the lofted drive. It was fitting that his century was reached off a reverse sweep (off Harbhajan) and his 150 with a slog sweep against the spin of Ojha. It would not quite be true to suggest that, when in such form, he can hit the ball where he wants at will, but, blessed with a vast arsenal of scoring options, he is desperately hard to contain when set.
Cook's contribution should not be played down. Not only had England's captain shown what could be achieved against such opposition, with a century in vain amid the rubble of England's Ahmedabad humbling, he also provided the solid platform upon which Pietersen could capitalise. Cook's was, it its own right, a fine innings.
But to talk of Cook's innings would be to talk of the play on the night on which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the theatre. Pietersen's innings overshadowed all else, and, underlining the impression that he had risen above everything around him, England lost their final five wickets for 31 after his departure. But by then the vital contribution of the match had been made and the series had turned. Pietersen had played an innings of which Sir Vivian Richards would have been proud. There really isn't any praise higher.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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