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Fallen from grace but brimming with talent, Pietersen redeemed himself in Mumbai last year and got back on the pedestal of greatness
November 18, 2013
DOOF! A full-blooded cover drive first ball up. Thirty thousand voices roar their approval as the scuffed cherry scuds over the rope at 60 mph. Then a deft cut, as sharp as the batsman's number two crew cut. - four behind square. Harbhajan groans. Down the wicket to the next one. BIFF! Slapped over mid-wicket - inches from being a six. The wild crowd jump and holler and cheer in a hot wave of sound. Then another. SMACK! Back foot, carved clean through the covers. Four. He's up and running alright. BOFF! Then a hop and a skip, neat feet forward and drives with sweet timing wide of mid-off. Six of his first nine scoring shots are fours. He's got to his fifty in 63 balls.
A little blue-helmeted figure in the middle of a vast dusty amphitheatre raising his bat handle, gripped down near the splice acknowledging each cricket-crazed corner of the Wankhede stadium in turn. Loving it. And they love him. The tall South African who does it all for his adopted England. Record breaker. Innovator. The Decimator. They love the way he tears it up in the IPL and now on the biggest stage of all. Big shots, new shots. They love his swagger. His dominion. They love KP. 110%. KP. Legend. And that's just his fifty.
It's quite amazing how things go. England and Pietersen had come into this match under enormous pressure, having been walloped in the first Test by nine wickets; a match in which he had failed miserably with scores of 17 and two, out both times to the 26-year-old left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha. This cricketing ignominy had merely added to the off-field pressure Pietersen was already under vis a vis the little matter of his 'reintegration'.
Rewind to the previous summer when it appeared that his entire international career seemed destined to unravel under the weight of bad, not to say foolish, decisions. Firstly there was the announcement of his retirement from certain forms of the game, a 'decision' that seemed to place Pietersen above his team and country. But, as he said at the time: "It's tough being me." This was followed by ill-considered back-tracking and half-hearted pangs of conscience resulting in the shambles of a YouTube statement. Who told him this was a good idea? Then there were derogatory text messages about some of his team-mates to some of his mates in the South African team. In the understated argot of all sportsmen, Pietersen commented at the time: "To say I am gutted is an understatement." Not for him the eloquent response of England fast-bowling legend and poet John Augustine Snow who, back in 1969, on being dropped for disciplinary reasons, had penned On Being Dropped which put it all in perspective with the closing lines: 'So come on, who's king of the castle/ now I'm the dirty rascal/standing/on a still summer's day/eye watching swallows/insect-chasing way'.
For less poetic and more pragmatic reasons, by November 2012 everyone had kissed and made up in good time for the tricky tour to the subcontinent under new England captain Alastair Cook. But with one condition: that Pietersen demonstrate his 'reintegration'. The only real way back would be by dint of his batting prowess and weight of runs. Never knowingly one to help his own cause, this process did not, for example, extend to staying in the same part of the hotel as the rest of the squad, enabling the Daily Mail to tittle-tattle:
'…although the five-star Tower accommodation is good enough for everyone else, including Mumbai's greatest, Sachin Tendulkar, KP has paid for an upgrade for himself and wife Jessica to the even more luxurious Palace rooms that were refurbished to their former glory after the terrorist attack in 2008.'
But at least on the pitch things are looking up. Back to the action. After tea on day two, with a chanceless fifty under his belt, the 6' 4" KP is getting into his not insignificant stride; in this case a neat angled shot off pace bowler Zaheer Khan for his ninth four to bring up the 100 partnership with Captain Cook who is on 84 not out. England 171-2, in reply to India's first innings 327 and both players perhaps heading towards equalling the England Test record of 22 centuries.
However, despite the inclination to the positive, if either of these two had been dismissed at this point in the proceedings, on a strip turning as wickedly as this one, then the Indian total would have looked daunting. After all, Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann had taken nine Indian wickets the day before leaving Mahendra Singh Dhoni perhaps ruing his request for a turner from day one. But you could see the logic, especially in the case of England's danger man, Kevin Pietersen, whose vulnerability to left-arm spin was his Achilles heel and maybe the key to the series. And it was precisely this weakness that had been exposed in the first Test - clean bowled twice by left-arm spinner Ojha which meant that, coming into the Mumbai Test, Pietersen had fallen an unlikely 25 times to this variety in Tests. Rarely has a cricketer attracted so much psychoanalysis or, for that matter, barely disguised equivocation: 'Kevin Pietersen's paranoia of left-arm spinners is destroying him,' ran the Vic Marks headline in the Guardian. 'Do not believe him if KP says he does not have a thing about left-arm spinners,' he opined, 'Pietersen does not believe that at the start of his innings in a Test he can survive against a good left-arm spinner on a slow-turning track by playing in orthodox fashion.'
And here in the Sheshrao Krushnarao Wankhede Stadium was a spinner's paradise as Pietersen himself testified: "It's spinning, bouncing, from straight, from off-straight." On 39, he received one from Ojha described by Cricinfo thus: 'Jeepers! That's unplayable. Leaps off a good length and spits past Pietersen's outside edge as he comes forward. Pietersen even has to lurch his head out of the line…KP takes a moment to compose himself.' Next ball: 'Pietersen…gets well forward…which isn't easy to do when one has just spat past the face.'
|Now KP seems to be getting larger than life. The jutting square jaw, the GI Joe haircut, the sap white-toothed sportsman grin. The slightly robotic straight-backed running, 3D computer-game style and the mannered salute - bat aloft to a distant British public, saved from defeat and humiliation. He's here to help in his own modest way. Order restored|
But right from the start of his innings it was clear to see he had put things right. He led with judicious defence mixed with knowing which balls to leave before easing onto the front foot with real intent and aggression - taking the attack to the opposition. "I didn't trust my defence in Ahmedabad…and as a batter if you don't trust your defence as much, you try too many things and you try and force the issue." And so, as many great players had done before him, Kevin Pietersen had gone back to basics with the help of England's batting coach, the grizzled Graham Gooch.
And now it was paying off with both he and Alastair Cook batting through to stumps on the second day, displaying exemplary discipline and technique because that was exactly what the pitch, the bowlers (nearly 900 Test wickets between them) and England's situation in the match required of them. Cook progressing with the calm of a man with destiny on his side to an unbeaten 87 and a determined Pietersen exorcising his ghosts on 62 not out and England 178-2 at close of play.
Day three. Forty degrees of heat. Ravichandran Ashwin with his carom ball and Ojha resume hostilities. KP to face. Last ball of the over. Ojha invites the drive and beats the bat with one that turns and bounces away.
"Note to self. This pitch means business." Next over, Cook takes a single. Then it's Ashwin to KP. SWISH! Swept for four. A single takes KP on to strike next over. Ojha to bowl. KP swings. Thick edge. Two runs wide of gully. Next ball Ojha retaliates at 93 kph. The pace is quickening all round. KP up to 73, Cook on 90. A botched run-out of Cook reminds us that the Indian fielding is below par but essentially this is all about the pressure being exerted by these two great batsmen.
Apart from his run-rate, what's really making it work is KP's offensive-defensive cricket where even the shots that find fielders, mid-off, point, or cover, they're back-foot punches, firm drives and forward defence with an open face of the bat - pushing the fielders, testing the nerve of the bowlers, looking for the angles. And great patience too, then BANG! Last ball of a near maiden from Ojha, he's straight down the wicket swinging his arms and smacking a big one straight over mid-on for four. The next ball he faces from Ojha will also be despatched for four. As Shane Warne has it, 'Pietersen can destroy you in a session...he is like Lara in that he strikes boundaries in clusters.' More like clusterlets in this match and it helps explain how this innings was becoming a truly great one and one that exemplifies KP's stature as a batsman.
A Pietersen Big Innings makes for wonderful TV highlights; strong, assertive defence, a dazzling array of sure-footed shot-making, finely-executed sweeps, cuts, big lofted drives, switch hits, scoops and hoofs. Clustered, relentless and climbing bigger and bigger; and yes there would be big slog-sweep sixes to follow. And such is it that when it's all put together it builds into an innings that's bigger than the batsman himself, an innings that transcends the individual, and begins to shape the match itself. And crucially here, he is never alone. With England on 219-2 there's the little matter of Alastair Cook's record-equalling 22nd Test hundred gracefully achieved with a fine, driven boundary and graciously acknowledged with all the pride and pleasure one would expect in a 27-year-old cricketer at the top of his game with plenty more to come.
But enough of the captain, back to KP. The batting genius is up to 97 and facing Harbhajan who tosses it up on leg. KP closes the face enough to reverse sweep and guides it past slip. Four! Now 101 not out. As Australian rockers AC/DC put it "For those about to rock, we salute you." No fancy celebrations this time. No grand gesture. A patient raise of the arms. Hugs Cook. Takes the tip of his bat close to his helmet grille. Aaah Excalibur. No grand gesture? Nothing for the televised audience of millions?
This is the age of the tweet, of kevinpietersen.com. KP, T20 cricket commodity auctioned to the Delhi Daredevils. England 236-2. KP resumes. He's clicking through the gears now, taking the game away from India as he does so. The shots are getting bigger, the sweep of his bat more deadly and synchronised and he's reading the bowlers, moving his feet to pick the gaps. He sees the three men on the leg-side boundary and goes against Ashwin's spin with a full bat. THWACK! Fired away over mid-on for a big six. Then he leaves a few that turn sharply. However, in his 18 overs bowled so far, Harbhajan has yet to complete a maiden, Pietersen is reading all Ashwin's variations and as for the left-arm spinner Ojha, KP has not finished with him yet! This is payback time.
It couldn't go on for ever and finally Cook departed to a beauty from Ashwin, edged to wicket-keeper Dhoni for 122 with England on 274-3. He and Pietersen had steered England to within 53 runs of India's total in their stand of 206, the highest third-wicket stand ever in India and this on a pitch where wickets could fall in a hurry. As if to advertise the danger, Jonny Bairstow was soon out, caught off the bowling of Ojha for nine, heralding lunch on the third day with Pietersen unbeaten on 138.
He returns for the afternoon session with new partner Samit Patel. This would prove to be the most destructive session of his batting masterclass. The first few overs from Ojha and Zaheer see KP patient and circumspect as he allows his lunch to digest, then suddenly it's BAM! The ball a little short from Ojha and cracked off the toe of the bat past point. Then KERRANG! A great lolloping slog-sweep six into the crowd who are off their seats and cheering wildly as KP acknowledges his next landmark, equalling the most 150s for England alongside Len Hutton and Walter Hammond.
Now KP seems to be getting larger than life; it's going all Roy Lichtenstein. He is the comic book hero. The jutting square jaw, the GI Joe haircut, the sap white-toothed sportsman grin. The slightly robotic straight-backed running, 3D computer-game style and the mannered salute - bat aloft to a distant British public, saved from defeat and humiliation. He's here to help in his own modest way. Order restored.
Back to business - another six off Ojha, a massive maximum swatted over extra-cover. KERPOW! Then mere mortal Samit Patel gets out. Matt Prior in. England 357-5. First ball of Ojha's next over, SLAP! KP slog-sweeps him for another six into the stands followed by a top-edged paddle-sweep for four. Those mini-clusters sure taste sweet. KP 180 not out. England have a first-innings lead of 41. Then suddenly it's over. Ojha gets his man. KP chases a ball spinning outside off, gets a thin edge, Dhoni pouches and he marches off, bat under his arm, job done - "So I went and did a lot of hard work as I always do and luckily it paid off."
Scyld Berry for the Daily Telegraph was less prosaic:
"What he did with his bat in this Test match was nothing short of genius. It was virtually free of flaw for a start. He edged his main adversary, the left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, through gully early on Sunday morning, after he had resumed on 62. Thereafter he rose and soared, above and beyond the capacity of any other mortals in this match. His innings, secondly, was composed in extreme conditions that were far too demanding for most batsmen, including some of the best players of this era."
Pietersen's dismissal was the beginning of the end (or the end of the beginning) for England as their last five wickets fell for only 31 runs. But the lead of 86 was the platform for Panesar and Swann's demolition of India's second innings with only two players making double figures and the spin twins sharing all the wickets. With just 57 needed, England won by 10 wickets. The whole momentum of the series had changed in three sessions - India were rattled and England went into the next Test with their tails up and duly won by seven wickets. A drawn fourth Test meant England took the series 2-1; only David Gower's 1984-85 vintage had previously come from a Test down to win a series in India and the home team had been outplayed in all departments, the most striking being spin.
So how great was Pietersen's innings in the great scheme of things? After he was out on day three, the pundits rushed to rate it his best ever but the man himself would not be drawn into agreeing with them until, tellingly, after the game was won. Only then did he finally admit it came "top". So even a player with as big an ego as Pietersen, a quintessentially modern sportsman acutely aware of his image and his standing in the game, even he recognised that the true 'greatness' of his personal contribution was enormously enhanced by the collective result if not defined by it. And there's no doubt this innings directly contributed not only to winning this Test but, such was its dominance and flair on a testing wicket, that it set the tone for England to go on to one of their greatest achievements ever in winning the series in India.
Having said that, this was not one of those great solitary innings against all the odds, the quality of the Indian attack was not vintage, though still good enough to account for the rest of the England team for 98 runs while Pietersen and Cook amassed 308 runs for the team. And there's the crux of it. Pietersen was, for the most part, not alone in his great endeavour and a huge amount of credit has to go to Alastair Cook - he had played Adams to Lara or Dravid to Laxman. But this can't detract from one of the greatest Test-match batting displays as a spectacle, a feast set before the most passionate, cricket-obsessed nation on the planet. Who could not marvel at the bravura shot-making on a par with Viv Richards or Virender Sehwag at their brutal best, or admire his discipline and technique on a genuinely challenging pitch from first ball to last like a Glenn Turner or Hanif Mohammad. And even the most partisan home crowd could not fail to celebrate his reduction of bowlers to spectators at their own disembowelment, of fielders left diving after a ball that either cut between them with surgical precision or flew over their heads into the stands.
And as for the man himself: "I never know what is going to happen tomorrow. I don't take myself that seriously. I do everything on a day-by-day basis. What will be, will be. I live my life by the day", he says. So are we to believe that Pietersen is some doppelganger of Albert Camus' existential anti-hero in L'Etranger, a latter-day Meursault whose lack of remorse or guilt confounds the judge at his trial?
Certainly the questionable sincerity of his reintegration or any of the other regrets he may, or may not have had, about incidents in his career, such as being stripped of the England captaincy, put him in the existential frame; not to mention the insularity, and maybe even guilt, of his English paymasters and the press corps (less so the paying public) that also cast him in the role of perpetual outsider. But to be truly existential, Pietersen would need to exist in a godless universe and this is simply not the case. Cricket is full of gods! And perhaps deep down, despite his showbiz lifestyle, love of publicity, the website, tweeting, texting and tattoos - all the trappings of the thoroughly modern sportsman, perhaps what Kevin Pietersen has to say about himself, tells us that rather than being remembered for what he isn't, 'one of the greatest cricketers of all time', he'd actually settle for being described for what he truly is: 'A hell of a great cricketer'.
Excerpted with permission from Masterly Batting: 100 Great Test Centuries edited by Patrick Ferriday and David Wilson, Von Krumm Publishing, October 2013
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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