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For the third time in his career but the second time in eight months, Kevin Pietersen translated a solid start into an explosive double-century finish, as if his recent lean times had taught him the value of seizing the moment
July 22, 2011
It was on this ground three years ago that Kevin Pietersen's career reached a plateau of contentment. Against South Africa in 2008, he stroked a century in his first Test appearance against his former countrymen, and declared immediately afterwards that he'd never felt "so loved". Today his emotions were ever so slightly different. There was plenty love, he said, from his grateful colleagues in the dressing room as he basked in the brilliance of his 202 not out, but one sensed that his over-riding emotion was relief.
Relief, in the first instance, that India's belated acceptance of Hotspot technology allowed him to escape the humiliation of becoming MS Dhoni's first Test wicket. Relief, also, that Rahul Dravid's scooped catch at leg slip on 49 was turned down by the TV umpire. But relief, ultimately, that in the course of a 326-ball stay that comprised three distinct tiers of confidence and aggression, he was able to crush the last of the many hoodoos that have laid his career low in recent times.
For the first time since that summer of love three years ago, Pietersen has recorded a century on home soil. It's not, in his own singular mind, an especially big deal, for he had threatened to do just that throughout a series of burgeoning form against Sri Lanka. All the same, the manner in which he broke through was typical of the man and his talents. For the third time in his career but the second time in eight months, Pietersen translated a solid start into an explosive double-century finish, as if his recent lean times had taught him the value of seizing the moment.
"It's something to be proud of, definitely," Pietersen said. "There's been some fairly complimentary thing being said to me in the dressing room. I've never had to work harder. With the conditions I batted in yesterday, and having to face MS Dhoni for half an hour as well, I reckon it's right up there with the hundreds I've scored. They bowled really well in swinging conditions and the pitch was seaming as well. I was missing balls by a couple of inches on occasions... it was real hard graft."
The real graft was done, unquestionably, on the first afternoon of the game, prior to Zaheer Khan's hamstring strain, when a thick and transformative cloud cover had forced England to wade through their day's work at barely two-and-a-half runs an over. Pietersen himself made 22 from 73 balls in that time, an unwaveringly diligent spell at the crease that had more in common with Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, the two men who have superseded him as the bankers in England's batting line-up.
No-one in their right mind would wish Pietersen to take on board too many of the accumulative traits that those two have been displaying in the last 18 months - last month Graeme Swann jokingly referred to England's top three as the ultimate cure for insomnia, and added that it was only KP and Ian Bell who were actually worth the spectators' entrance fee. Nevertheless, since Pietersen's last hundred on home soil at The Oval in 2008, eight of his team-mates have racked up 18 hundreds between them, including four apiece for Trott and Cook.
There's a lesson to be learnt from their current levels of accumulation, especially as that was the one great criticism of KP during the days when he scored runs for fun. He made ten centuries in his first 30 Tests, yet managed just one in excess of 158, against West Indies at Headingley in 2007 - a return which hinted at a tendency to play one loose stroke too many when he had opposition bowlers at his mercy. "Make it a daddy," has been Cook's mantra throughout his career, as learnt from England's most prolific batsman of all, Graham Gooch. When you get in, go on. And today, as in Adelaide, Pietersen did.
The true glory of Pietersen's innings did not appear until much later in the piece, however. The thrill of his acceleration was something to behold, as he spent 134 balls over his first fifty runs, 82 over his second, 75 over the third, and a blistering 25 in powering along to his double, which he sealed in a throwback fashion by blazing Suresh Raina for 4, 6, 2 and 4 off consecutive deliveries. In the first phase of his career, that was his method for dealing with all the nervous nineties - and sometimes, perhaps most fatefully at Sabina Park in 2009, he would succumb trying.
Maybe this willingness to postpone the extravagance is the mark of a new maturity. At the start of the year, Pietersen spoke effusively of his desire to push on to 10,000 Test runs, and cement the legend that his early successes had always suggested he could become. During today's grandstand finale, he powered past 6000 Test runs, and by the time of England's declaration, he had nosed his career average up to 49.83.
And what is more, he did so while obeying team orders, as Andrew Strauss's improbably aggressive declaration quickly confirmed. "I went off for a toilet break at drinks and I said to Strauss if you want to pull us off now, then pull us off now," he said. "We had quite a few runs, so it wasn't about double-hundred for me. It was about the team being in a good position going forward in this Test match."
They certainly are in a good position, with Pietersen's timely input ensuring they have now gone seven consecutive innings without being dismissed for less than 450. And once again, his eye for the grand occasion is in full evidence. Just as his innings defined England's victory platform in the crucial first win of the Ashes, so he now has laid claim to the first round of Test cricket's current world heavyweight bout. His backpage-catching strongman pose on reaching 200 was the biggest extravagance of his day - that, and an aborted switch hit off Harbhajan Singh, when the beleaguered offspinner spotted him flipping in his stance with his 150 already on the board.
"You go through good, you go through bad, but if you're being true to yourself, you do your hard work and do the business," Pietersen said. "If you do the hard work that I do you have to be rewarded."
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge