KP rides his luck in fight for form
Kevin Pietersen outscored the entire Pakistan team in his first-innings knock of 80 today, but it'll take a few layers of dust on the scorebook before that stat manages to outshine its mitigating circumstances. Three clear-cut chances - one of them outrageously simple - and one controversial dead-ball "catch" competed with a host of snicks, gropes and optimistic lunges, as Pietersen fought to overcome his own troubling lack of form, and haul England into another commanding position.
"It wasn't my most fluent of knocks. But in terms of the situation of the game, it was one I'm pretty pleased with," Pietersen said at the close of play. "I obviously rode my luck, but on that wicket, you've got to. It was two-paced, and occasionally the ball would nip - which made it really hard. It was one of those real grafting wickets, but we hope we're in position now to do something really good on day three."
Humility has never come entirely naturally to Pietersen, but he's had no choice but to feast on humble pie in recent times - from the loss of the captaincy, through the loss of his fitness, and ultimately the loss of his form - and it was strangely fitting that this particular performance required him to scrape the bottom of the pie-dish itself. It wasn't especially edifying to watch, and as he paced the dressing-room corridor during a rain-break his tension was plain to see, but in terms of getting his game back to where he wants it, the scraps he chiselled out were doubtless every bit as nutritious.
"Yeah, my confidence has taken a big whack," he said. "Obviously I haven't been scoring the big hundreds I did in the first fifty-odd Tests. But it's not as if I haven't been scoring runs. The dressing room is a fun place, the boys are on good form and you always feel pretty confident among them. I've taken a big hit in the last 18 months, but I'll fight back.
"You go from captaining the team to being one of the men again ... being told what to do all day every day is something that was hard, in the way that everything happened 18 months ago," he recalled. "Then I got injured and had a bad tour of South Africa - I was playing really badly there - so it's not been ideal, the last 18 months. And then the last two wickets have been extremely tough. I haven't played on two tougher ones in England in my career in Test match cricket."
Thanks to their hapless fielding, Pakistan effectively left themselves needing to take 16 wickets to break even, and therefore it was something of an achievement to restrict England to a less-than-formidable 251. They did so without the services of Umar Gul, who pulled a hamstring, but found in Saeed Ajmal a canny offspinner with a well-disguised doosra who backed up the strike bowlers, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, with the sort of disciplined fare that Danish Kaneria had failed to provide at Trent Bridge.
All of which conferred extra kudos on Pietersen's grafting performance, but aside from one sumptuous leg-side flick to bring up his fifty, his flamboyant strokes of old remained under wraps, on a zippy surface that played into the hands of one of his most troublesome opponents. "Asif has made me look a clown on numerous occasions so far in my career ," he said. "So to get down the wicket and take out lbw and bowled was probably the best option, and to play straight."
Aside from the struggle to reaffirm his status after a nightmarish year in 2009, Pietersen has also had to contend with a dispute on the home front, with his desire to move on from Hampshire leaving him out on a limb domestically, and without serious cricket coming into this series since the Australia ODIs in June. An opportunity to play a second XI fixture was turned down because of concerns about the quality of the cricket and the media circus that would have accompanied it, and instead his main preparation involved an intensive week of coaching with Graham Gooch at Lord's.
Pietersen conceded, however, that he had dropped his guard on the preparation front - a rare lapse from a man whose dedication to self-improvement has been one of the defining features of his career. A Man of the Series performance in England's triumphant World Twenty20 campaign left him believing that his game was in better shape than he'd imagined, and it's taken until now for him to make up the deficit.
"The work I did with Goochie was brilliant work, and I didn't feel in bad nick coming into the series, but I took some of my form from the Caribbean for granted coming into the summer, and I learned a few lessons. It's the mental side of Test cricket you've got to get in tune with. You've got to really keep working hard, no matter how well you're playing, and you've got to respect everything. But I'm fighting back now, and hopefully I'm back somewhere."
It was not an apology of an innings - far from it. But it did contain an apology nonetheless, as Pietersen extended his current penchant for mea culpas to the incident, on 41, when he slapped a dead-ball delivery straight to Salman Butt in the covers. "It was instinct, and I probably shouldn't have hit it, so I apologise if I caused any issues. But the umpire called dead ball before the ball was bowled, so I think, and I haven't read the rules book, but I think that's a dead ball."
Salman Butt, Pakistan's captain, also played down the issue as he fronted up for his team once again - as well he might on a day when his players had no-one to blame but themselves. To compound Butt's misery, he was dismissed for a duck in the final hour of the day, to take his series tally to a sorry 16 runs.
"It's a one-ball game for us batsmen, and if you get a good one there's not much we can do," he said. "If we are lucky it might pass without edging, sometimes it doesn't carry. But I think all the luck was with KP today."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.