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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
May 29, 2011
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.
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