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May 12, 2006
An over-awed Sri Lanka in early-season conditions, versus a rampant Australia in the definitive match of an era. Clearly there is no question which was the greater of the two performances, and yet Pietersen himself was quietly satisfied with the manner he had gone about his first demolition job of 2006. After a long winter of self-discovery in the subcontinent, he has returned determined to be an even more formidable opponent.
"I think the way I played the innings, never mind the circumstances, that was my best hundred in Test cricket," said Pietersen. "The situation wasn't the same as at The Oval in terms of saving the Ashes, but there's a saying: 'one brings two after a big partnership' and I realised that when I came to the wicket.
"I played as straight as I could as long as I could," he added. "I was much more patient. I'd worked myself out over the winter, and instead of going out and spraying it to all parts, I thought I cultivated a pretty good and sensible innings."
Pietersen's winter was a curate's egg of a performance, in which he repeatedly squandered good starts with moments of rash indecision - most notably at Faisalabad in November when, having brought up his hundred with a six off Shoaib Akhtar, he perished to the very next delivery as he attempted a repeat of the stroke.
"Hopefully there's a button inside me that I've now pushed," said Pietersen, adding that his dismissal for 98 in a recent C&G Trophy match for Hampshire had been the final incentive to knuckle down and press on. "It's a case of going on now and hopefully converting a lot more. There comes a time when you get used to scoring hundreds instead of fifties."
The reality, however, was somewhat different. "I struggled to be honest," he said of his duel with Muralitharan, a man he had seen at close quarters as a World XI team-mate last October, but had not faced in the middle since his early days as a county cricketer. "It's a different ballgame in a Test match, and I found him very very difficult."
Even a lengthy and responsible Pietersen innings passes in a flash - 205 balls and 300 minutes, to be precise. But it was the manner in which he coped with his own destructive urges that was most pleasing to the player himself. "I try to make a decision within myself," Pietersen explained. "If you bat for four or five hours, you go through stages when you have to tighten up, and then there are times when you're hitting the ball nicely and standing well at the crease, and then it's time to clear the ropes."
He did so just twice today, compared to the seven sixes he smacked in that absurdly brilliant performance last summer, but given the state of the game, that tally was an apt testament to his new frugal approach. "This is probably the first Test match I've played where we've been so dominant, and it's fantastic" he said, and it is indeed remarkable to think that Pietersen has been playing Test cricket for less than a year - he really is an instant veteran.
Even so, he's been through enough in his 11 Tests to date to justify the tag, and for all the temperamental brilliance of his latest visit to the crease, there's still no doubting which is the innings he truly savours.
"If I keep getting 158 and The Oval sticks as my career best," he grinned, "I won't mind that!"
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