South Africa in England 2012 July 26, 2012

Pressure points the way for Petersen

Alviro Petersen is the latest South Africa opener to be tested by English conditions - but that may play to his strengths

Big series, big names. When the battle for No. 1 was played on keyboards and in broadcasters' studios before the first Test, it was reputation that won. So far, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn have proved them right. The four put in performances worthy of their statuses and left some of their own team-mates, and every England squad member bar Alastair Cook, behind them.

Not that there are many small fry. England probably only have one in Ravi Bopara, who didn't play a Test for almost a year and has to perform under a cloud of pressure that is about to burst into a monsoon. South Africa have Imran Tahir, who finally made a significant impact after seven Tests without shaking the world. Two others, Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy spent the match contesting who stomped on more grass, though Rudolph did have a job in shining the ball and carrying hats and caps while Duminy bowled a few overs.

But the performance of Alviro Petersen, South Africa's No.2 in the batting line-up, is the one that cannot slip away quietly even if only because it sticks out so obviously. Petersen's duck is sandwiched between a score of 131 and another of 311. Below that is Kallis' 182.

It would be easy to write off Petersen as "that other guy who opens the batting" but to do that would be unfair. What happened to Petersen could just as easily have happened to Smith and it did happen to both Andrew Strauss and Cook. He was on the receiving end of a very good ball, a James Anderson inswinger that struck him on the pad. In his column on a South African website, Petersen called it "the best ball of the match".

Steyn, Morne Morkel and even Tahir may disagree but Petersen's point remains. England has shown itself to be one of the most difficult places to open the batting and, apart from Graeme Smith, South Africans have struggled historically in here. Andrew Hudson managed just 30 runs in four innings in 1994 and Gerhardus Liebenberg fared little better four years later, with 59 runs in six innings. Smith prompted the improvement in recent tours, which took the spotlight off his partners. Three of them, Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs and Neil McKenzie all averaged over 30 in England but relied on a handful of big innings rather than a series of consistent performances in the country.

Gibbs and McKenzie have had the most fruitful pairings with Smith, for any opening partner who has played more than 20 innings with him. The next most successful is Petersen, who has opened with Smith 25 times. Together, they have put on half-century stands seven times and three-figure partnerships twice - 153 against Pakistan in Dubai and 111 against India in Centurion. While both stands were impressive, they fall short of being called iconic.

England could change that. While the two pace attacks have been described as the ones to watch in this series, whoever can withstand the packs will also be worth keeping an eye on. Smith has already done that, Petersen still has to.

His has been a career build on performance under pressure. In his 13 Tests, he has already scored three centuries, all of them to prove a point. The first came on debut in India, the second on comeback in Cape Town and the third after he was thought to have fallen off the wagon a little in Wellington. "If you look at my career, even my first-class career, most of the time I've done things under pressure." Petersen said.

After two lean seasons in 2006-07 and 2007-08, he came back to average 57.33 and 55.70 in consecutive southern summers, to force his way into the national team. After being dropped for Jacques Rudolph, he responded with a hundred on a green-top against Australia in a tour match. After being criticised in New Zealand for making a strong statement in his comeback against Sri Lanka but fading a little after that, he made a stronger one with 156 in the third Test.

It was that lull in New Zealand that led people to think Petersen can only perform when he is being targeted and he recognised that may be the case. "I've really tried to find a way of doing things even if there is no pressure. I try and get the edge and perform and prove a point to myself," he said. "In the past, it was always about proving points to other people. Now it's about proving it to myself. Sometimes I ask myself questions and challenge myself - can you do it, can you really do it?"

He may be asking himself the same question now. Petersen prepared for this series with a stint at Essex, but does not place too much emphasis on that. "Test match cricket is mostly about mental preparation," he said. "Sometimes in county cricket or first-class cricket you can't get to that standard of Test cricket in terms of firing yourself up and really getting battle-hardened. For me, it was really about trying to perform and knowing that when I come to face England it would be a different challenge."

Different because there will be pressure, more so now that the first Test has gone and Petersen was not among its performers. It may not be the same as the individual demands he has faced in the past; but the bowlers, the conditions, the occasion and the success of the team will all add different degrees of that pressure he has thrived on before, and could help him be among the big names of the series and the future.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent