'I'd probably rate that as No. 1'
Kevin Pietersen and hyperbole go together like champagne and strawberries, so for him to describe his ninth Test century - and his third in four visits to Lord's - as the best and most challenging innings of his life was probably stretching credulity just a fraction. Even so, the glorious excess of Pietersen's celebrations today told a tale-and-a-half. After an apparent downturn in his early-season form, compounded by last week's claims that he was "exhausted", this was a scolding statement of renewed intent.
"That was right out of the top drawer," said Pietersen. "I'd probably rate that as No. 1 to be totally honest. The conditions last night and this morning were as testing as I've had them in international cricket, or county cricket for that matter. You could see by my celebrations how happy I was, because that really, really was a difficult day for batting."
For all the diligence of India's swing-dominated attack, was the occasion really more testing than Shane Warne and Brett Lee on the final day of the Oval Test in 2005, or Shoaib Akhtar and his cohorts on a dusty deathbed in Faisalabad three months later? Or, for that matter, any number of his lone-gunman performances in Australia this winter just gone? Unquestionably not, although Pietersen was living only in the moment during this innings. Seeing as he contributed almost half of England's second-innings runs - and more than three times as many as any other batsman - this was undoubtedly a good thing.
"I play to entertain, I play to enjoy myself, I play to express myself," said Pietersen, who was ninth out for 134 as he attempted to force the pace against RP Singh. "But the most important thing is setting myself and the team up to win the Test match. That's why I gave my wicket away trying to get a few more runs. If I was playing for myself, I could have quite easily still been batting now."
"We were looking to get a 400 lead, so I was pretty cross to get out at 380, but that's the way I play, I'll do anything," he said. "I do like to have fun, but this was one of those innings where I definitely put the team first. I always get told to carry on, so I'll keep doing what I'm doing, and as long as I can do I will do."
No moment summed up Pietersen's single-mindedness more emphatically than the shot that brought his hundred, and the celebration that accompanied it. No sooner had he clipped Anil Kumble through midwicket, he was gone - hurtling towards the Edrich Stand at the sort of clip that could have earned him three runs not one. His beaming fiancee, Jessica, was the focus of his frenzied bat-waving, and it was only when the umpires urged him to get over the moment and get on with the game that he learned he'd picked up four for the shot - Sreesanth on the Grandstand boundary had fumbled the ball over the rope.
Pietersen has never been shy of enjoying the moment - at Headingley back in May, he even got carried away on his captain's behalf, when Michael Vaughan recorded an emotional century on his Test comeback. But this reaction was something else entirely - in fact, it bore some of the hallmarks of Nasser Hussain's infamous gesture to the press-box during his one-day century against India in the NatWest final of 2002. Afterwards he was adamant that he had not been stung by the recent flak flying around in the media, but his words carried the gravitas of a man who knew he'd made his point.
"What you guys should know is that every single time I turn up for a training session, every single time I turn up for an international, I'll never ever shy away from anything," said Pietersen. "I'm committed to everything I do for this country, everything I do for this team - to win a Test match, to win a one-day game, and my preparation is everything to me. It is instrumental to the way I perform, and it goes without saying that I'm as happy as I can be. My celebrations were because of everything that went into this Test match as well.
|This reaction was something else entirely - in fact, it bore some of the hallmarks of Nasser Hussain's infamous gesture to the press-box during his one-day century against India in the NatWest final of 2002. Afterwards he was adamant that he had not been stung by the recent flak flying around in the media, but his words carried the gravitas of a man who knew he'd made his point|
"Everyone's entitled to their own opinions," he added. "I simply answered a simple question that I was asked last week on my time off, and it got blown up. But I'm as committed to everything. I've never ever shied away from anything, I've always turned up for England. I've never ever asked for a day off, ever. As long as I'm asked to play for England I'll play for England."
Pietersen's celebration, however, was not a patch on the euphoria experienced by Monty Panesar later in the day. On his debut in Nagpur last March, Panesar's first victim had been none other than Sachin Tendulkar, lbw for 16 to a perfectly pitched arm-ball. "Once in a blue moon, never again, mate," read the message that Tendulkar later scrawled on the ball. And yet today, on the identical score, he fell in an identical manner, and Panesar's reaction was identically incredulous.
"Sachin's his big man, the man he's looked up to and really, really admired since he was a little boy," said Pietersen, "so for him to get out the bloke he admires most in this world is fantastic for Monty. But it was good bowling leading up to that wicket. Full due to him, he looks like he can get a wicket every ball. Let's hope everybody turns up tomorrow and we keep asking questions."
On a fifth-day wicket that is just starting to go through the top, Panesar will undoubtedly be England's most crucial weapon. And yet, he bowled just eight overs in the first innings, thanks to a superbly disciplined display for England's rookie seam attack of James Anderson, Ryan Sidebottom and Chris Tremlett.
"They were amazing, absolutely amazing," said Pietersen. "Everybody said it's a young attack, can we do it, can't we doing, how can we do it? They've turned up and it looks as if they've been bowling in Test cricket for ten years. The way they've carried on their lines, their lengths and the speeds at which they've bowled as well - they've been brilliant."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo