England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Cardiff, 4th day May 29, 2011

The hunter becomes the hunted

England have stood by their man, but Kevin Pietersen is yet to find a solution to his struggles against left-arm spin or chart a route back to form

New beginning, same old ending. England's cricketers may have embarked on a new four-year cycle of international commitments, but on the batting front at least, certain facets of their play have scarcely changed since the end of 2010. Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott still bat with the rigidity of guardsmen at the Royal Wedding; Ian Bell still exudes the air of a man whose repertoire is wasted at No. 5. And Kevin Pietersen still succumbs to left-arm spinners with a regularity that no-one can write off as a coincidence.

In print if not in deed, Pietersen launched the 2011 summer with an onslaught of ambition, as he sought to draw a line under the events of an eventful winter, and reassert his credentials as one of the greatest England batsmen of his age. A solitary failure in a featureless contest hardly counts as evidence that his world is collapsing around him, but nevertheless, he knows, as we know, that already sceptical tongues are now wagging ten-fold.

Sri Lanka's left-arm spinner Rangana Herath had bowled 122 balls without reward when, in the 102nd over of the innings and his second since the arrival of Pietersen, he skidded one through from round the wicket, and pinned his man dead in front of middle. The ball, in mitigation, kept a fraction low and required a review to send him on his way, but such was the tangle of limbs with which KP had repelled his previous four deliveries, such a scenario had never seemed far from the surface.

It was typical of Pietersen that, even on a day when he contributed less than 1% of England's total, he nevertheless deflected attention from a man whose second Test double-century, and fourth 150-plus score of the past 12 months, showcased none of the jitters that are so visible in his colleague's performances. Cold-blooded accumulation is Trott's watchword, and for 409 deliveries spanning eight-and-a-half hours, he drained his performance of all emotion, and set about Sri Lanka with the precision and patience of a brain surgeon.

Pietersen would not, could not, seek to emulate such a method - and nor would anyone wish him to try. The only sort of brain surgery he'd ever seek to carry out is a frontal lobotomy, preferably on the spinner who dares to toss one up in his slot. That is his way, and he's never seen fit to change throughout his career. From his berserk introduction to Shane Warne in 2005, to arguably the apotheosis of his confrontational strokeplay on Sri Lanka's last tour a year later, when he first unfurled the switch hit against an incredulous Muttiah Muralitharan, he's attempted to impose his will on slow bowling of all shapes, sizes and reputation.

It just so happens, however, that right now the reverse is true. These days the hunter has become the hunted, by one breed of spinner above all others, and the nervous energy that used to translate into slash-and-burn performances has given way to nerves, pure and simple. Even at Adelaide, during his Ashes 227, the appearance of the long-since-lampooned Xavier Doherty brought him out in an instant rash. It might not have changed the game, but how different would Pietersen's reputation look had he succumbed to his nervy first-ball charge against Doherty, or holed out to cover when the third delivery skewed off a leading edge?

Pietersen's desire to dominate in that innings was so intense, in fact, that when, in the aftermath of that match, Nasser Hussain asked if he had now answered all doubts about his ability to play left-arm spin, he peevishly denied there was an issue in the first place. That assertion was at odds with the statistics that state he has now been dismissed by left-arm spin in 19 of his last 61 Test innings (having never fallen to the format in any of his previous 63), and on 43 occasions in international cricket all told.

What is more, it also goes against the very heartfelt admission that Pietersen himself made on the tour of Bangladesh in March 2010, when he had worked tirelessly on his leaky technique against bowlers of the calibre of Shakib Al Hasan and Abdur Razzak, and ground his way to scores of 99,32,45 and 74 not out in four innings. Such a visible Achilles heel need not be a long-term issue - as Graham Gooch famously demonstrated after his struggles against Terry Alderman in 1989 - but any attempt at denial seems set to compound the problem.

"With Kev it's a case of things just not going his way in the last couple of months," said Trott. "We saw how he can play in Adelaide, when I was quite happy to get out the way and watch him bat and score a double-hundred the way he did. Everyone in the dressing room backs Kev to the hilt, the way he has played for the last couple of years. With a tough couple of months he's still averaging over 48 in Test cricket, so the guy's a special talent to have in our dressing room. With Kevin Pietersen on song we're definitely a better team."

For Trott to be talking averages was ironic on a day when his own mark briefly exceeded 70, and as players like Jimmy Adams and even Mike Hussey have demonstrated in the past, such astronomical figures may not be sustainable in the long term. Nevertheless, there was a time when it seemed that Pietersen would never settle for anything less than an average of 50. But then, in 2008, he fell to Daniel Vettori on four occasions in eight innings, and that little nugget of unease was planted in his mind.

It was later that year, during his captaincy stint in India, when the first shoots of doubt started to emerge, most notably in Mohali, when the part-timer Yuvraj Singh was tossed the ball with the score on 2 for 2, and all but lured Pietersen into a fatal drive to mid-off. Since that day, every cack-hander in the industry has fancied his chances of a breakthrough, including last month the Cambridge University student Zafar Ansari. A batsman nicknamed "Ego" by the Australians has yet to find a convincing means of combating the taunting.

"Everyone probably gets out to right-arm seam a third of the time as well," said Trott, a man who could hardly be more oblivious to mindgames right now. "It's one of those things. The best thing is not to worry about it, just go out and play. A lot of the factors...left-arm spin, left-arm this and left-arm that ...I just try and go out and do the best I can and keep it as simple as I can. As cricketers you can make the game more difficult for yourself and overhype things. It's a simple thing, a bat and a ball and you just see it and hit it."

That, in a nutshell, is the problem for Pietersen. He used to be able to do just that to such a high standard, with such an impenetrable mindset, that in the summer of 2006 it was seriously being suggested that he did not have a single weakness in his armoury. Contrast that mental fortitude with the paranoia he displayed on the eve of the series, when the assembled press corps, this writer included, found themselves reassuring England's highest-profile cricketer that they bore him no malice, but simply wished to understand what makes him tick.

"For Kev, whenever he is hitting the ball well, you know he's in for a good day and hopefully at Lord's he will be alright," concluded Trott, and it's hard to argue with that assertion. For all the excellence of the batting on display in Cardiff, there's an aspect of the accumulation which has left many observers non-plussed. Even Trott and Cook would happily concede that there is no sight in English cricket quite like Kevin Pietersen in full flight. Sadly those flights seem as rare as Concorde these days.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dru on May 30, 2011, 17:44 GMT

    For those of you who missed it the article is about KP getting out to left armers. Most of the great batters have an issue with similar problem: S. Waugh and the short ball and throw in Ganguly there, Lara flirting outside the off, Gouch's flick off the legs - the list goes on and no doubt KP has a challenge to overcome what I see is not the real issue. KP's issue is his mind and ego and his inability to take control of it is showing up in other areas and left armers have got the better of him but the reality it could be the short ball, the fishing outside off, the hook or waht ever - the point is his battles are within.

  • Dummy4 on May 30, 2011, 17:36 GMT

    @ Sri Lankan whingers "slow scoring rate" brigade Time for Bell to get 100, and still over 25 overs left when we won. Not even close. England is just THAT MUCH BETTER than you. Live with it. Better still go and watch your "baseball T20" or whatever that junk is and leave the test cricket to the grown ups. You aren't good enough to compete in the real game. @ Indian fans who decided to post on a thread that has nothing to do with them (for a change - yawn) - you will lose 2-0 or 3-0 later this summer. At least one test you will lose by an innings.Your ancient batsmen and medium pace dibbly dobbly geriatics will be shown the door pretty quickly. Stick to monotonous slogging baseball T20 and leave the real cricket to the teams who can play it.

  • Graham on May 30, 2011, 16:41 GMT

    Ha. SL subside to 82 all out and England claim an innings victory in a match where rain had shortened the game by a day and a half. So much for all the nonsense about slow scoring rates and Test cricket dying of boredom.

    I expect to hear a deafening silence from all the earlier SL and Indian posters trying to bury England. They did a proper job on SL, and no mistake.

  • Dummy4 on May 30, 2011, 16:32 GMT

    @ C.Dila. Sri Lanka haven't lost yet (2 wickets left) but there's a good chance they might and if they'd batted more like Trott then there wouldn't be an issue. There was nothing wrong with Trott's scoring rate. If it wasn't for the extensive rain then there's a good chance this match would have been coming towards a result even without a freakish Sri Lankan collapse (make that 1 wicket left. Good catch Bell.) He's batted fantastically and in a manner and ata tempo wholly suited to Test cricket ever since he came in to the team. Can't fault him! Hope he carries on like this for years.

  • Rohan on May 30, 2011, 14:35 GMT

    this is probably the best batting lineup england has ever had, just look at the averages, has england ever put out a batting lineup as massive as this? just look at the top 7.. strauss 43, cook 47, trott 61, piterson 48, bell 44, morgan 32( just starting), prior 42, not even the might of india can top that, this is amazing, englands quest for the no1 spot is on, but to my mind cricket any game of cricket has always been about territory and culture, "we agaisnt them", those against others"... but is the batting might of england even truly english, when england faces another territory how much is englands' cricket put to the test

  • Prince on May 30, 2011, 13:16 GMT

    When Sourav Ganguly gets out to a few short balls it becomes a weakness..When an Asian batsman gets out in a similar fashion for 4-5 innings it is a weakness....& when Kevin Pietersen keeps on getting out everytime to left arm spin for 2 years,it is not a problem.... They aim to be the best test team by just winning all home series & an away test series in Australia against an Australian side which would be beaten by most teams now....How comic & pathetic !

  • david on May 30, 2011, 13:09 GMT

    i think most people who seem to comment on scoring rate, should stick to 20/20. this is test cricket and i am of an age were this scoring is just par for the course. if u enjoy test cricket the scoring rate is only part of the match. look at some of what i would call the good/great players of all time at the end of their careers and trott who has not reached 1/2 way is right up there in rate and at the moment average.dpk

  • Jason on May 30, 2011, 13:05 GMT

    @Hereth, why should england decalre early? Would Sri-lanka have done the same if the positions were reveresed, I think not. With the state of the match, having lost the best part of 140 overs due to weather, this has become more about exhausting the Sri lankan bowling unit, and demoralising the fielders ahead of Lords on Friday.

  • chamara on May 30, 2011, 12:19 GMT

    Thank god sl will save this Test match because of mr.Trott. oh he played such a boring inning. he bated like 6,7 Day left in the match i think Trott going to kill Test Cricket. if Trott play next 2 Test matches like this impossible to get result

  • lijihas on May 30, 2011, 11:56 GMT

    lankans are lucky...always rain helping them to make draw the test against top ranked team.... if rain was not there means lankans would ve been pussy cats instead of lions .funny

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