March 15, 2013

Pietersen's magical second-Test abilities

When overseas, England's best batsman seems to be playing on a trampoline


Kevin Pietersen made a carefully constructed and carelessly concluded 73 in Wellington, consolidating the outstanding first-day batting of Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott, before Matt Prior converted it into scoreboard dominance. England's mercurial superstar thus recovered from a dismal game in Dunedin, in which an excusable first-innings golden duck to a fine Neil Wagner inswinger - bucking the team tactics for the innings by getting out to a good ball instead of planking a bad one straight to a fielder - was followed by a second-innings 12 that was pokier than an agoraphobic's secret dungeon.

England's well-documented garbageous form in overseas first Tests, which now stands at a solitary victory over Bangladesh in 14 series since 2005, has coincided with Pietersen's arrival in the team. Pietersen has played in all 14 of those Tests, averaged 29, and scored no centuries (albeit with a couple of very near misses). In the most recent four of those first Tests, he has scored 2 and 0, 3 and 30, 17 and 2, and 0 and 12.

However, in few short days between the first and second Tests of away series, Pietersen locks himself in a special magic cocoon, before exploding out for the second Test, like a caterpillar who swallowed a Lancaster bomber, transmuted into an unstoppable force of batting devastation. In 14 second Tests overseas, Pietersen averages 80. He has hit six centuries - including two big ones in Ashes matches in Adelaide, a brilliant 151 in Galle, and his recent Mumbai masterpiece - plus three more half-centuries.

Then, with the momentum of a series often turned England's way, Pietersen once again dons his cloak of vulnerability, a garment he dons and discards with astonishing rapidity. In the third, fourth and fifth Tests of series: 18 matches, two hundreds, average 34. England, therefore, should drop him immediately before his inevitable comedown in Auckland. Or clonk him on the head with an anvil and hope that he forgets the Wellington Test, and plays the third Test as if it were the second.

Brendon McCullum might have been out of his mind in suggesting that Alastair Cook is second only to Bradman in the annals of batting magnificence (or talking in some form of secret code to let his wife know that he had left the oven on at home), but he would have been on sounder footing to suggest that Pietersen is in fact better than Bradman. Albeit only in second Tests of series away from home. The Don averaged a paltry 78 in the second Tests of the four rubbers he played away from Baggy Greenland. (To be fair to the statistical Zeus that he was, Bradman outshone Pietersen in the latter stages of away series, averaging a useful 133 in third, fourth and fifth Tests combined.)

Pietersen's scoring in away series constitutes a curious pattern. Particularly when you compare it with his equivalent figures in Tests in England - he averages 56 in first Tests, 56 in second Tests, and 51 in third/fourth/fifth Tests. Reliable equilibrium at home. From low to high and back again like a demented Edmund Hillary everywhere else. If anyone can explain these figures, please alert Pietersen, the ECB, and the International Journal of Psychology.

  • Some comparisons with other players in away Tests: Cook: 51 in 1st Tests; 64 in 2nd Tests; 49 in 3rd/4th/5th Tests. Strauss: 41-28-50. Trott: 47-44-44. Bell: 33-49-37. Prior 35.4-37.2-52.9 (only away 100s in 5th Tests) A random selection of other leading batsmen's averages in second Tests overseas: Hobbs 67; Sobers 52; Richards 60; Tendulkar 59; Hutton 49; Kallis 60; Ponting 42; Dravid 52; Miandad 33; Crowe 53; Boycott 38; Greg Chappell 77. A very quick perusal of about 20 leading players found only one who outperformed Pietersen in away second Tests - Wally Hammond, who averaged 104, significantly aided an unbeaten triple in New Zealand.
  • Pietersen is not alone in struggling in first Tests overseas. Len Hutton, arguably England's greatest ever batsman, averaged just 27 in the opening matches of away rubbers. He seemed to warm up as series went on, however, averaging 49 in second Tests, 45 in third, 74 in fourth and 91 in fifth. This pattern was largely replicated in home Tests. Overall, his averages in each match of series ascended as follows: 36-44-58-78-85.
  • The first innings in Wellington was the third time in four Tests in 2013 that four New Zealand bowlers have bowled 30 or more overs in an innings. They had done so just three times in their previous 113 Tests over 13 years.
  • England's new Balthazar of Block, Steven Finn, has now faced 304 balls and been out three times in this series. Previously in his entire first-class career, he had faced 1327 balls and been out 61 times - once every 22 balls.
  • DRS rightly deprived Bryce Martin of Matt Prior's wicket, which would have given him the first five-wicket innings haul by a New Zealand spinner in a home Test against England since Stephen Boock, in Auckland in 1977-78. Martin's nine wickets so far in the first two Tests are already the joint second most by a Kiwi tweakman in a home series against England, behind Dipak Patel's ten in the 1991-92 series. Daniel Vettori, in his three home series against England, has taken 7, 5 and 7 wickets.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer