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A Test century against his former countrymen, at the first time of asking, in front of a packed and unquestionably adoring Lord's crowd. It doesn't get better than that
July 10, 2008
After scoring the century that he has desired above all others, Kevin Pietersen took a deep breath as he walked in to face the media this evening. It was as if he was settling himself for the speech you can imagine he's been yearning to deliver, ever since he upped sticks from South Africa at the turn of the millennium, and embarked on a journey that has now brought him to fulfillment. A Test century against his former countrymen, at the first time of asking, in front of a packed and unquestionably adoring Lord's crowd. It doesn't get better than that.
The moment of his hundred will live with him forever - a euphoric cut in front of point, an instant pumping of the fist as he rushed to the non-striker's end, then a long and leisurely amble of honour, as he whipped off his helmet, kissed the badge, and saluted all four corners of the ground. It was, by Pietersen's typically self-aggrandising standards, a modest response to such a momentous achievement, but then this was not an occasion which needed overstating. Besides, the Lord's faithful - not generally renowned for displaying their emotions - milked the moment for him, as he found himself prolonging his celebrations like an actor accepting his encore.
"This makes me feel so, so loved right now," said Pietersen. "This is on a par with the 2005 Ashes, when I walked off at The Oval with my 158. I always said I'd love to have that feeling again, and today the way the crowd and the spectators appreciated my hundred and supported me was one of the most emotional two minutes of my career so far. It is exactly the same feeling I had in 2005. It ranks right, right up there."
It was an apt comparison, albeit one with a subtle difference. Both innings were about the end of long journeys, but in 2005, the crowd's joy and relief was solely centred on the regaining of the Ashes, and transcended any lingering misgivings about the status of this diffident interloper with the brash badger-striped haircut. Today, however, was the first day of what promises to be a richly contested series, but for Pietersen himself it was the endgame. He can close the book on the circumstances of his international career, knowing that no-one will ever doubt his allegiance again.
"Before [this innings], there was a lot of speculation about me being originally from South Africa, but for the crowd to be like they were today was absolutely magnificent," he said. "I can't thank them enough for that appreciation. At the start of my career there was a lot of nonsense, which was expected, but I certainly knew I'd have to play well and do things to get everybody on my side. But sitting here right now, I feel as English as anybody, and I absolutely love it."
Pietersen's innings was not without its hairy moments. He arrived at the crease looking more nervous than he has ever seemed in an England shirt. He could have run himself out second-ball as he hurtled a mad single to get off the mark, and was clanged on the helmet moments later by Dale Steyn - a delivery, he remarked, that had helped to wake him up. Afterwards, however, he insisted he had been serenity personified all throughout his performance. Few truly believed him, but it was certainly how he was coming across in the warm afterglow of his achievement.
"When we played South Africa in Barbados last year for the World Cup, I was absolutely stupidly nervous and fidgety," he said, "I don't know why, but the pressure going into that fixture, a must-win match, I got myself far too worked up and it wasn't fun. But this time I was training on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so that I could wake up this morning and go out and entertain. I was as relaxed this morning as I always am."
As for that run-out, Pietersen laughed it off, and recalled an incident in the furious atmosphere of his maiden one-day appearance against South Africa in Johannesburg. "That's life, it's why we play the game," he said. "My first ball in South Africa, after the crowd erupted when I came out to bat, Andre Nel bowled a ball just back of a length that I played at and missed. I could have nicked that as well, but those are the things in life where the script is written, and somebody's writing a pretty incredible script for me today."
It wasn't a solo performance from Pietersen, however, and he was eager to share the praise (though admittedly, only a fraction of it) with his sidekick Ian Bell, whose coolly composed 75 not out was, in Pietersen's estimation, the best he's ever seen him play. Bell drove his first ball for four and had reached 30 from 18 balls before Pietersen had reached double figures, and in so doing drew the sting of a South African attack that only had eyes for the main prize.
Pietersen, however, was defiant about his own self-sufficiency. "I think it helped Ian Bell a lot more than it helped me," he retorted, the only slight note of churlishness in his entire address. "He told me when he walked off at tea he got 200 in the week [for Warwickshire against Gloucestershire], but I didn't know because I was away in Spain and didn't keep tabs with any cricket. But that first scoring shot when he drove Morkel for four, I thought, am I batting with Ian Bell here?"
Bell began this match with his head on the chopping block, with Andrew Flintoff itching to reclaim his place at Headingley, and England on the ropes after three wickets in 13 balls. None of those circumstances were in evidence, however, in a remarkable performance that developed in isolation from the tussle at the other end. "The pressure he is under, or was under, that will be gone," said Pietersen. "Any team, wherever, if you lose three wickets in a Test in ten minutes, it's pressure. But the way Belly came out, he played positively, beautifully, and I thought: 'Right, I've got to hang around here, get myself in, and play from a solid base."
That he did, and by the end of the day he was flowing so freely that all his cares melted away in the evening sun. The South Africans who had once been so hostile towards him joined the crowd in offering their congratulations, and Pietersen at last felt able to declare, without fear of contradiction, that he has found peace within his game.
"It's all totally gone," he said. "I've never really had any beef with the South Africans. Graeme [Smith] and I had a bit of an altercation, but that for me is something that happens in life, and it's gone. I get on well with the South Africans, and Andre Nel's just given me a big hug, and said well done. We play sport to make friends around the world and enjoy ourselves, and today I'm humbled."