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August 4, 2006
Kevin Pietersen has had a quiet time of late. Ever since his appeal for England's "youngsters" to raise their game, he has been shunted unceremoniously into the background, as whippersnappers answering to the names of Cook, Bell, Strauss and Collingwood racked up six centuries between them.
But KP's not a man who can be starved of publicity for long, and appropriately enough, when his turn came to resume centre stage, he clattered back into the limelight with such enthusiasm that he almost brought the scenery crashing down around his ears. Runs, controversy, outrageous strokeplay and the melodrama of his untimely departure. It was all packed into this, his fifth Test century and third of a bountiful summer.
Pietersen bridled when the word "spotlight" was thrown innocently into the post-match press conference. "It's not the spotlight," he said with feeling. "It doesn't bother me, it's just a case of knowing that the whole team's done well. It's a team effort, and everyone's fantastic. Cooky's been brilliant, Belly continues to be superb, Colly's fantastic, Straussy's got a hundred and it'd be really great for Tressy to get a hundred as well. There's no greater feeling in the job that we do, it's a fantastic feeling."
Superlatives galore then. But Pietersen's Test centuries are rather like the man, for they divide opinion into two opposed camps. When they are good they are quite simply sensational - take his 158 against Australia for instance, and frame it for posterity. But when they are less good (and this latest one was certainly no classic) then the pundits can get rather sniffy. Chancy, rash, foolhardy - those are the adjectives he attracts, never more vitriolicly than during his last century against Pakistan, at Faisalabad in December, when he smacked Shoaib Akhtar for six to reach three figures, and holed out to a top-edge next ball.
Perhaps it's too easy to be churlish to a performer so supreme - tall-poppy syndrome is what they call it. But Pietersen's approach to Test cricket is fascinating precisely because no-one, bowlers or pundits alike, has yet got inside his head. His phenomenal rate of scoring is one reason why he intrigues. Pietersen is not a man who knows how to graft, and so it stands to reason that he'll take the route one approach if there's a hint of adversity in the air. "There's still quite a bit in that wicket," he confirmed afterwards, "and I never once felt in, all through the day. Normally when you get a score you feel in at some stage, but not today."
Such is the changed world that Pietersen inhabits (and has helped to change). Given that this is Headingley, that most evocative of grafter's venues, his predecessors as England's No. 4 - men such as Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe - would have sized up a situation in which two wickets had tumbled for the addition of no runs, and set out their stalls to bat all day, regardless of runs, quality of opponents or strokeplay. That's not to say that either approach is right or wrong, but you can bet that, had either of them reached a hundred, "courageous" and "battling" would have been the words on most people's lips, and neither would have looked anything like as sheepish afterwards.
Clearly luck was on Pietersen's side, but that is something that you make for yourself when you bat as boldly as he does. Take his approach to the nervous nineties, for instance. Today was a typically bombastic performance: a flick through midwicket to go to 91, then (in between running repairs for his cramping forearm) four, four, dot, one to complete the sequence with a hop and a skip and a jubilant fling of the bat.
It took him four deliveries to get through the nineties today; at Edgbaston in May it was five. At Lord's a week earlier he had needed seven, and at Faisalabad, prior to that hiccup, he had needed just three. The longest he has dallied in the nineties was a tortuous 15 deliveries against the Aussies last summer, but then that was rather a stressful occasion ...
But Pietersen had been flinging the bat with abandon long before that magnificent finale. "You take the rough with the smooth," he said when asked why he had not walked for the caught-behind appeal that is sure to have inflamed sensitivities in the subcontinent. "That's life, that's the game of cricket, that's why we love it. I was not 100% sure I nicked it and there was a mark on my thigh."
"I'm not out there to give decisions," he added, "and I'm sure I'm not the only batsman out there who doesn't walk." That much is doubtless true, but there are few batsmen who can look as unflinchingly convinced of their right to continue dominating the bowlers as he does. The pair that followed, on the other hand - Ian Bell and Chris Read - brought to the crease the small furry vulnerable look of hobbits. Again, that is not to under-estimate their resolve (read the book if you doubt me) but once again it turns them into victims of perception.
Read started brightly but finished with another score in the high-30s - his fourth between 37 and 38 in 12 Tests. Bell, on the other hand, carried on caressing the ball with a grace matched by none this series, to record the eighth English score in excess of fifty. No-one has yet failed to convert to three figures, and since his recall, Bell has racked up precisely 300 runs without being dismissed by a bowler. In fact, he's been chanceless and barely noticed. For better or worse, it's not an approach that Pietersen would ever consider.
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