December 27, 2010

Letting go

The final week of the fourth fastest-scoring year in Test history – 3.34 runs an over, and counting – is upon us

The final week of the fourth fastest-scoring year in Test history – 3.34 runs an over, and counting – is upon us. Yet no prettier or more telling strokes were glimpsed in Melbourne today than 14 statements of non-scoring intent.

And let us understand this aright: when Kevin Pietersen leaves a ball, a statement is what it is. It is no mere gesture or modest away-shuffle, and it is certainly not that ultimate cricketing misnomer, the “no-stroke”. Like a man plucking a dagger clean out of a rock, Pietersen heaves his hands and arms high and twists backwards at the ribcage. His bat finishes horizontal above his head, the stickers sky-side up. His gloves are out of danger’s way and his arms a metre apart, elbows pointing at, taunting almost, the gully fieldsman.

It is all a whir, a blur. But peer through that and into his eyes – Pietersen’s oddly sad, brown eyes. At first they are fixed on the approaching ball. Then the instant the ball is past him, the eyes flick up and onto the bowler’s own eyes: a silent declaration of a small battle won.

The bowler feels this defeat in all his bowling pressure points: back, feet, hamstrings, patella tendons. Brain, too – for he knows he must now do it all again. Turn around. Walk back. Turn again. Sprint. Leap. Bowl. That next ball, nearly every time, is straighter, for few bowlers relish the sight of a second ball zooming harmlessly past and all that worked-up energy going to waste again. And because this follow-up ball is straighter, it is invariably closer to where the batsman wants it. For Pietersen, then, it is a kind of double victory.

He faced 89 deliveries today. He left twice as many (14) as he clubbed to the fence (7). On a typical Pietersen day out, that ratio is reversed. Most of today’s 14 leaves were the extravagant sort – hands, ribcage, elbows, etcetera – which is some sort of tribute, at least, to Australia’s try-hard toilers. For there are few spectacles more demeaning to a bowler than the don’t-bother-twitching-a-muscle leave.

Only when the part-time leggie came on did Pietersen stow the leave away in his kitbag. Intent on pummelling Steve Smith’s confidence, Pietersen’s feet pranced forwards, backwards, sideways, like he was a mouse in a cage trying to find its way off a wheel. This went on for a couple of overs. Then everyone trooped off for lunch and Steve Waugh, the least overexposed of Australia’s latter-day Test captains, made a rare trek up to the Channel 9 commentary box. Conversation turned to the batsmen of a certain southern hemisphere nation and how seldom they practise tilting side-on to the swinging ball and letting it go by. “If they’re not doing that in the nets,” growled Waugh, “you can’t expect them to pull it out in front of 80,000 people on Boxing Day.”

Ben Hilfenhaus took the new ball and Pietersen left alone – extravagant leave-alones, these – the second, third and fourth deliveries. He rifled a grass-scorching straight drive back past Ryan Harris. It wasn’t a bad ball. It was simply a moment of batting bliss; a shade too much bliss, perhaps, for something in Pietersen snapped. Next ball, he played at one he would have left earlier and went feather-ticklingly – and somewhat controversially – close to inside-edging it. Then he played at another. His feet rooted to the crease, and his mind stuck in a bit of a fog too, he was out lbw not long after.

He’d made 51 – only three above his average, and a not-one-thing-or-the-other sort of score, and soon it seemed even less noteworthy as England’s lead sailed past 200, beyond 300, towards 400. Yet it was Pietersen, in part, who’d made all that carnage possible. As the afternoon’s proceedings took on a hazy inevitability, you remembered those 14 times when Pietersen left the ball. You remembered, too, the 10 occasions on Boxing Day when Australia’s batsmen didn’t.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country