Freaks united ignite summer's entertainment
They say summer attracts the extraordinary: be it annual riots, the interminable Big Brother, or leaving John Prescott in charge of the country while the Prime Minister goes on holiday. At Edgbaston today, two extraordinary cricketers - Kevin Pietersen and Muttiah Muralitharan - starred in the first freak show of the season. And what gripping viewing it was.
Unorthodox players are increasingly common these days. In this Test alone there have been three on show; Pietersen, Muralitharan and Mr Roundarm himself, Lasith Malinga, launching missiles seemingly from Darrell Hair's midriff. However it was KP and Murali who provided the entertainment. Pietersen: the match-winning batsman, with lever-long arms, equally giraffe-long legs and an insatiable appetite for audacity. Muralitharan: Sri Lanka's golden boy, possessing elasticised wrists, an unnerving accuracy and a hunger for wickets to match the very greatest to have played the game.
Seemingly England's nemesis for ever, Muralitharan was nullified with such audacious bravado that a newcomer to Test cricket might question our fascination and amazement at the little Sri Lankan's ability. In the 53 overs Pietersen spent at the crease, Muralitharan was reduced to a mere stagehand to the day's event: this was KP's show, and not even a bamboozling legend would stop him.
In a single over, Muralitharan was taken apart for three fours; through extra-cover first, past long-off for the second and, with the attempted doosra, cut past point. Better shots were played throughout the day, but Pietersen's successive triple burst spoke volumes of a man who refuses to be contained, dictated to or pressured - even by a spinner who is on course to break all records. The moment of the day - a reverse-swept six hit with immense power - silenced even Murali, which was no mean feat. Watching his relaxed, rhythmic approach to the crease, the incredible spin he imparts on the ball, the control over his length, the snap of the wrist and the extended flourishing follow-through is a mini feature-film in itself. Combined with Pietersen, the show became a blockbuster. In the 58 balls he received from Muralitharan, Pietersen crunched 56 runs, 40 of them in boundaries. He has been flicking balls outside off through midwicket throughout his brief career, which inevitably drew comparisons with Viv Richards. Such a resemblance no longer seems fanciful: when was the last time a right-handed batsman dominated Muralitharan so brutally, effectively and with such panache?
When Sri Lanka were, rather embarrassingly, only granted one Test in England in 1998, Muralitharan had such control over England's batsmen (John Crawley apart) that it was hard to imagine anyone laying a bat on him. Ever. In that single Test at The Oval, he took 16 wickets; that's more than some can hope for in an entire series. And while Pietersen humanised Murali temporarily, the little genius gained revenge when he trapped him lbw. And thereafter the KP show packed up, went home and were replaced by Murali. England have no doubt improved drastically on their ability to play spin, but they remain relatively clueless on playing him.
After nailing Pietersen, Muralitharan added two more wickets to his ever growing number, giving him six in the innings; his appetite knows no bounds, and nor his ability or popularity. And like Pietersen, it is his unorthodoxy which has helped bring him success.
Extraordinary players have a habit of endearing themselves to the public. While Pietersen has attracted plenty of attention for his off-the-field glitz and glamour, it is on the cricket field, along with players like Muralitharan, that he belongs. The summer has finally arrived.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo