India v England, 2nd Test, Mumbai, 3rd day November 25, 2012

Doubts bring out the best in Pietersen

When others experience problems and he finds a point to prove, Kevin Pietersen flourishes

There may have been more reliable batsmen, there may have been more responsible batsmen and there may have been more consistent batsmen. But there have been very few batsmen to have been so destructive, so often, as Kevin Pietersen.

Certainly it is hard to think of another England batsman of recent vintage who could have played the innings Pietersen played. On a pitch offering substantial assistance to the spinners and on which other batsmen have struggled for fluency, Pietersen created the illusion that he was operating on a batting paradise. Only when others, some of whom are considered experts in such conditions, prodded and struggled were the true nature of the conditions exposed.

This was an innings that many thought could never be played. When Pietersen was dropped from the England team in August, bridges were smouldering and, so deep were the divisions between him and his colleagues, that it looked for a while that there could be no return. It is surely for the best that a rapprochement was achieved. At a time when Test cricket is fighting for relevance and room, talents like Pietersen are to be savoured by anyone from any nation. His return is an asset not just to England, but to the game. Players like this do not come around very often.

Pietersen is often at his best with a point to prove. It was after a poor tour of the UAE earlier this year that he produced the innings of 151 in Colombo; as the chasm between him and his teammates grew that he produced the innings of 149 in Leeds and as he sought to restate his worth after "reintegration" that he produced this innings. Most players are at their best when they feel comfortable; Pietersen is at his best when he feels doubted.

Each great innings has been produced as his colleagues have struggled. Here, apart from the excellent Alastair Cook, no other England batsman could manage more than 29. At Leeds, Matt Prior, with 68, was the only other man to get out of the 30s and, even in Colombo, where England started well, Pietersen's departure saw England lose their last five wickets for 49 runs. He has produced three match-shaping centuries in his last eight Tests. No-one in the world has scored more runs in first-class cricket this year, either. He is a great batsman at the peak of his powers. His worth to the team is immense.

We should not be surprised. After all, before Pietersen, England had never won a global trophy. Before Pietersen, England had not won the Ashes in nearly two decades. Before Pietersen, England could barely dream of reaching No.1 in the ODI, Test or T20 rankings. It is largely through him that all those hurdles were cleared. He was, remember, the man of the tournament when England won the World T20 in the Caribbean in 2010 and it was his century at The Oval that clinched the 2005 Ashes.

It was masterful innings containing a medley of Pietersen's greatest hits. But what made it all possible was the fact that he was prepared to wait for the opportunity to play them.

Yet, despite it all, some will never take to Pietersen. They doubt his motives, his commitment and his loyalty. It is a state of affairs that perhaps says more about the doubters than the doubted. Pietersen, like everyone else who has ever played the game, will be a mixture of virtue and vice and it is often unwise to judge a sportsman on anything other than their performance. Whatever Pietersen's qualities off the pitch - and the truth is that most with an opinion are basing it on presumption rather than evidence - as a batsman it is hard to dispute his greatness.

His technique may, at times, look idiosyncratic, but there is thought and logic behind it. At his best, his eyes, his hands and his feet work in harmony consistent with most great players. It is just that, such is Pietersen's reach, his strength and his range of stroke, that he has more options than most. There will be occasions when he over-reaches or when his ego - so often a power of good in his batting - seduces him into danger. But that's the price you pay for the wild genius. Viv Richards was not so different.

So dominant was Pietersen in the opening session of the third day that he took a game in the balance and stole the initiative for England. He read R Ashwin's variation and, having done so, was confident enough to use his feet to hit the ball into the gaps and produced strong evidence to scotch the theory that he struggles against left-arm spin: at one staging thrashing Pragyan Ojha for two fours and three sixes in a 17-ball spell.

It was masterful stuff containing a medley of Pietersen's greatest hits: the slog-sweep, the reverse sweep, the scoop, the cover drive, the cut and the lofted drive. But what made it all possible was the fact that he was prepared to wait for the opportunity to play them. There was none of the premeditation we saw in Ahmedabad, as Pietersen demonstrated the patience and the technique to block the good balls and wait for the bad ones. And when you have the arsenal of scoring options of Pietersen, you never have to wait too long.

Cook is a different creature but must also be defined as great. Like Pietersen, Cook now has 22 Test centuries - no England player has scored more - and both should have plenty to come. Critics often judge a player's merit or talent not on effectiveness, but on aesthetics. While it is true that Cook may not time the ball with the sweetness of Ian Bell, the more apt criteria for judgement should be who you would rather bat in your team. Cook, by such a benchmark, scores well. His mental strength and determination may not create the pleasing elegance of Bell, but they will win more matches.

The excellence of Pietersen and Cook helped England to a first innings lead of 86 and, just as relevant in the long-term, a score of 400 for two innings in succession. On surfaces designed to exploit their weaknesses, that is an encouraging statistic.

It may be mis-leading, however. Cook and Pietersen apart, England's batsmen continued to struggle against spin. Jonny Bairstow showed some understandable naivety in playing across the left-arm spinner and Samit Patel has yet to justify his reputation against spin. England still look overly reliant for their runs on a couple of individuals.

The success of their spinners was a major boost, though. To lose the toss on a wicket tailor-made for the opposition and beat them at their own game would be a remarkable achievement. It may also provide India with some food for thought going into the rest of the series.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Bearing in mind England's struggles against spin this year, and the ghost of Abu Dhabi hanging over them, a target of as little as 120 may still provoke discomfort. This beguiling game may offer us another twist or two yet.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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