March 20, 2008

KP and the missing fire

Pietersen's now gone ten innings and counting without so much as a half-century. Something fundamental seems to have altered within his mindset

Will we ever again see the cricketer that Pietersen once was? © Getty Images

The manner of Kevin Pietersen's most recent Test dismissal was harsh, but highly appropriate given the slough into which his form has sunk this winter. He hasn't, on the face of it, looked particularly out of touch. The cocksure mannerisms are still intact - the confident stride to the crease, the exaggeratedly stretched forward-defensive that can't help but come across as condescension.

But in Wellington last week Chris Martin's fingertips brushed an Ian Bell straight-drive into the non-striker's stumps, Pietersen found himself stranded two feet out of his crease, and sent on his way for 17 from 38 balls. When the chips are down, the luck vanishes with them - even for a cricketer of Pietersen's immense stature.

Nobody truly doubts that he'll be back. The universal consensus is that he'll turn the tap back on and drown some hapless opponent with a torrent of pent-up strokeplay. "He's going to take someone to the cleaners", is how the former England coach, David Lloyd, described it to Cricinfo this week. And yet, Pietersen's now gone ten innings and counting without so much as a half-century, which is one innings longer than he had previously had to wait between hundreds. Even if it is only a temporary blip, something fundamental seems to have altered within his mindset.

It's not just the runs that Pietersen's been lacking of late. Gone is the furious pace at which he once racked them up. "He's a class player, and a point-of-difference player," said John Bracewell, New Zealand's coach. "He scores at a rate that generates results, and every Test team needs one of those players." Not in this series, he hasn't. His strike-rate over the first two Tests has been a career-low of 40.85, below even that of Alastair Cook, who to the immense mirth of his team-mates registered his first six in two years of international cricket during the Wellington Test. Pietersen, by contrast, has a grand total of 94.

There's nothing visibly downbeat about his demeanour. He's still cock of the walk in net sessions, and an immensely assured public speaker when his turn comes to face the cameras. And even when he drops a clanger, such as the catch he shelled off Ross Taylor in the second Test, his body language does not retreat an inch. Pietersen exudes positive vibes in everything that he does. And yet, right now he is the central plank of a batting line-up that, even by the admission of its captain, Michael Vaughan, has been lacking in confidence. Something doesn't quite add up.

Even in that discussion, however, Pietersen is a man apart. Whenever England's batting woes are analysed, the spotlight falls on the diffidence of Ian Bell's demeanour, or the cracks in Andrew Strauss's temperament, or the eternal struggle that Paul Collingwood faces to justify his place. Pietersen is universally recognised as the class act in the line-up, and therefore a man aloof from such scrutiny. Except that there's no escaping the knock-on effect in a team game such as cricket. He may have been the kingpin during last year's Ashes, for instance, scoring 490 runs at 54.44 to cement his place among the world elite, but on his watch, England were still routed 0-5. The confidence that Pietersen is currently lacking is as likely to be in the men around him than in his own hyper-assured gameplan.

Take his extraordinary first-innings crawl in Hamilton. Pietersen racked up 42 from 131 balls, then had the temerity to suggest that it was one of his greatest innings. In some warped sense it might well have been, because the speed with which England collapsed in their second innings (in which Pietersen made just 6) demonstrated just how fragile the team's confidence really had been. Far from blazing from the word go and risking an early demise, Pietersen decided that the best policy was to rein himself in, and in his own words, "not do anything stupid".

And yet, Pietersen announced himself as a modern great precisely because his cricket veered towards the crazy. Who else could have silenced their hate-filled former countrymen with three centuries in six innings, as Pietersen managed on his return to South Africa in 2004-05? And who else could have seized the day in the 2005 Ashes quite as he did, with that lunatic-fringe 158 on the final day at The Oval? Never mind piecemeal 42s. That was a great innings.

That is not to say he's become a lesser player - class is, as they say, permanent. But right now he is denying himself the right to play the game on instinct, as he has done in every series (bar one) since the 2006-07 Ashes

England's fans have been crying out for a counterattack of that calibre this winter. But will we ever again see the cricketer that Pietersen once was? Not even the man himself is too sure anymore. "Maybe the naïvete of youth helped me back then," he told Cricinfo last summer. "I don't know if I could play a similar innings now. In the last Ashes series I was a lot more patient - I've been under the watchful eye of the press for too long, haven't I? I'd probably be more circumspect if I had to play that innings again."

"More mature" is how he likes to categorise himself these days. He is increasingly being trusted as a viable captaincy option. The wacky hairstyles are a dim and distant memory. The pop-star girlfriend is now the pop-star wife, following his marriage to Liberty X's Jessica Taylor in December. Fatherhood, one imagines, won't be far behind if his recent utterances are anything to go by. Pietersen is settling down, and that seems to be reflected in his cricket.

That is not to say he's become a lesser player as a result - class is, as they say, permanent. But right now he is denying himself the right to play the game on instinct, as shown by his performances in every series (bar one) since the 2006-07 Ashes. The exception came against a supine West Indian attack last summer. Everyone cashed in - nine centuries from six batsmen all told - but none more so than Pietersen, who at last felt released from the pressures of carrying his colleagues, and battered a career-best 226 at Headingley, England's highest Test innings for 18 years.

Often his new circumspect approach has been spot-on. In the first two Tests of the 2006-07 Ashes, for instance, in the most pressurised circumstances imaginable, Pietersen produced slow-burn innings of 92 and 158 - two performances that deserved better than the twin defeats those games resulted in. His second-innings hundred against India at Lord's last summer was another case in point - it would have won England the match but for rain. Though his relative caution came as a surprise to those who had witnessed, among other things, his reverse-swept six off Muttiah Muralitharan the previous year, his approach was justified in hindsight. With Zaheer Khan swinging the ball both ways at will, England lost the series when their batting let them down at Trent Bridge.

But lately Pietersen's struggles have seemed counter-productive, especially now that confidence among the batsmen has become such a hot topic. After all, if KP can't do it, what hope the rest of the line-up? A hard, flat deck at Napier offers him his best chance this winter to play his natural game, and if he comes off as everyone in the game knows he can, England could yet turn this tour around and win the series at the last gasp. Because, as everyone in the game knows, a good challenge puts fire in Pietersen's belly like nothing else.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo