India treated to the real KP
It's not often that a batting side can lose two wickets at both the very start and the very end of a day's play, and still emerge with as many plaudits as England deserved at Mohali today. With nothing to lose after their Chennai defeat had been compounded by India's imposing total of 453, they began their innings with an obligation to force the pace, and achieved that aim handsomely thanks to a century of rare audacity from their captain, Kevin Pietersen.
Pietersen's best performances are a blend of inimitable style and substance. They scream "look at me!" not because he is a showboating batsman, but because he has a range of strokes and a depth of confidence that few of his contemporaries can countenance. For all his superstar status in India, the country has rarely witnessed his very best efforts - last week's twin failures at Chennai hinted at a man distracted by the circumstances of England's return to the country, but also one who was in a hurry to put the pedal to the metal and showcase his talents to the biggest audience in the game.
Today, however, he made a statement to be remembered, battering India's bowlers at a tempo that none of their own players had been able, or willing, to replicate in their own first innings. In many ways, his hand was forced by the sheer awfulness of England's start. Andrew Strauss, their rock at Chennai, misjudged a straight ball before he'd had time to work out the parameters of his innings, while Ian Bell was anonymous in a pressure situation yet again. At 2 for 1 in the second over, counterattack - Pietersen's favourite gameplan - was the only option remaining to his side.
India's tactics throughout a remarkable day were diligently executed, and in one notable instance truly inspired, but until his late misjudgement against Harbhajan Singh, Pietersen rose above it all - not least the masterstroke in the third over when Mahendra Singh Dhoni threw the ball to his supposed nemesis, Yuvraj Singh. It was an eye-catching decision designed purely to rile a player renowned for his "ego", and Pietersen admittedly did not look entirely comfortable that one-off over. But as he said afterwards in scathing tones, he'd sooner face "that pie-chucker" with the new ball than Zaheer Khan.
It was clear that something clicked in Pietersen once that over was out of the way, however. The frantic air-shots that had marred his Chennai performance were shelved, and in their place came the decisive aggression of a man who'd just been reminded he had a point to prove. If Pietersen has a large ego, and it is hard to deny that is the case, it is only because he knows he is an exceptionally talented batsman. As Australia learnt in 2005 and again 18 months later, it generally doesn't pay to pander to it in any way, shape or form.
Pietersen was aided early on by a lightning quick outfield, as well as an innings of rare timing from Alastair Cook, who is now unlikely to reach three figures in 2008, but who cannot have played a more confident knock all year. It wasn't until the arrival of Andrew Flintoff, however, that India switched into the defensive mode that prompted Pietersen to raise his game to even greater heights.
India's misplaced assumption was that with England's two biggest hitters together at the crease, frustration was the surest route to wickets. That plan, however, underestimated both Flintoff's ability to play the role of watchful stalwart (as he did as captain in 2005-06 with four fifties and a 43 in five visits to the crease) and moreover, Pietersen's sheer chutzpah.
For the bulk of an afternoon session that rippled with undercurrents, with Zaheer ploughing a furrow outside off stump and Amit Mishra twirling the ball into the leg-side rough, it was like watching a re-run of England's tactics to Sachin Tendulkar in 2001-02 … with one notable exception. Even Tendulkar's repertoire of shots doesn't include a stroke as remarkable as Pietersen's switch-hit, with which he electrified the crowd by smacking Harbhajan Singh clean over extra cover for six.
|He practises the switch-hit as diligently as the forward defensive, and it is the trump card in his batting armoury, the means by which he can force opposition bowlers to dance to his tune|
Pietersen's stroke is not merely a statement of contempt, though it doubtless has that effect as well. Given India's line of attack and the packed leg-side field, it was the best scoring option available to an England team who could not afford either to be bogged down or to risk dismissal in any other fashion - such as charging down the pitch and being stumped, as Tendulkar was so memorably at Bangalore in 2001-02.
Some might describe Pietersen's shot as a calculated risk, but that would underestimate the thought and application that he has put into the shot. He practises it as diligently as the forward defensive, and it is the trump card in his batting armoury, the means by which he can force opposition bowlers to dance to his tune. Until Harbhajan's breakthrough just before stumps, India's frontline spinners had managed a solitary maiden in 35 overs, a testament to the freedom with which England picked off their runs in spite of India's suffocating tactics.
Alas for England, all their hard work was undone in 12 deliveries at the end of the day, when Pietersen and Flintoff were prised from the crease in quick succession. And yet, in terms of keeping the game alive, the manner in which they batted has still given England hope of that elusive series-squaring victory. Had they replicated India's first-day performance of 179 for 1, for instance, they'd have had a better hope of batting out for a stalemate, but nothing else to keep them interested in the game.
At least this way, England have set themselves up to go for broke, and hang the consequences. India's batsmen will need to replicate the clarity of Pietersen's gameplan when their second innings comes along tomorrow, just to be on the safe side. All sorts of strange things are happening in Test cricket right now.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo