'Our orders were to go down blazing'
At the age of 22, and in barely three months as an England-qualified international, Craig Kieswetter has achieved a feat that eludes most cricketers in a lifetime. On Tuesday he returned to the County Ground in Taunton to a hero's welcome, with a World Cup-winner's medal in his pocket, and a Man of the Match trophy that will serve as a lasting memento of an incredible day in Barbados, in which his 63 from 49 balls guided England to a crushing seven-wicket over Australia in the final of the ICC World Twenty20.
"I'm trying to keep my feet on the ground but my head's still in the clouds," Kieswetter told Cricinfo. "I'm really buzzing about what we've done and I'm just trying to enjoy it. The reception I've received has been fantastic and pleasing, but I could never have imagined I'd be in this position so quickly. It's been a whirlwind, a rollercoaster with lots of emotional factors, but most of them have been really positive. I'm just really excited at the moment."
In terms of overs contested, Kieswetter's international career to date barely spans the length of a five-day Test match, but his role in the final alone contained enough thrills and spills to fill an entire mental scrapbook. He capped his tournament tally of 11 sixes with an incredible one-handed pick-up over fine leg off Dirk Nannes, and yet his final shot of the match was, incongruously, no shot at all, as he shouldered arms to a Mitchell Johnson yorker.
Meanwhile, in the field, he pulled off a wonderful leg-side diving catch to remove Brad Haddin and reduce Australia to 8 for 3 after 2.1 overs, but only after an earlier spill, from the third ball of the match, had been scooped up by Graeme Swann at slip, to set in motion an incredible chain of events.
"Knowing us, we like to have a bit of drama in finals, and it was definitely part of the plan for me to palm it up and for Swanny to pull out the big dive," Kieswetter joked. "But that moment really did go to show how much we wanted it, and the way he reacted showed how switched on to the game we were. The rest is obviously history, but it gave us momentum, and after that we hardly looked back."
While Kieswetter and Kevin Pietersen were together at the crease, England's eyes were firmly fixed on the finish line. The pair hurtled towards their victory target of 148 in a second-wicket stand of 111 in 68 balls. Rarely have any two England batsmen looked so confident and aggressive in a limited-overs partnership, and though they both fell in consecutive overs late in the innings, the intensity of their onslaught, particularly against the perceived weak link of the Australian attack, Shane Watson, ensured that the title was secured with a full three overs to spare.
"We were just trying to hit every ball for six, I think!" said Kieswetter. "But as much as the adrenalin was pumping, we were very aware tactically of where we wanted to be after six overs, after 10 overs, after 14 overs. We knew exactly where we were, and we knew there was a bit of an open door with Watson coming on to bowl, so we decided to attack him, and then we decided to attack everyone and finish the game as quickly as possible."
Kieswetter's only real regret came in the manner of his dismissal, with 27 still needed from 36 balls, as he gave himself too much room outside leg, and looked on helplessly as Johnson splattered his stumps. "I couldn't reach the ball in the end, and I was really disappointed," he said. "I really wanted to carry my bat and get a not-out, but fate's fate, and unfortunately for me I wasn't able to do that. Our gameplan all along was not to try not to leave it until the last two or three overs, and luckily for us it worked."
And so was capped an ascent to prominence of jump-jet proportions. As recently as February 15, Kieswetter was not even eligible for England selection, due to his much-discussed South African background, a factor that has been the subject of more controversy than it perhaps merits, seeing as his mother is Scottish and he was educated at Millfields School in Somerset, the county he has represented since he was a teenager.
Nevertheless, only 24 hours after completing his residency qualification, Kieswetter produced a blazing innings of 81 from 66 balls - in partnership with his fellow unknown, Michael Lumb - as the England Lions upstaged the senior side in what had been intended as a low-key Twenty20 warm-up match in Abu Dhabi. The power of his performance set Andy Flower's mind whirring as to the possibilities it opened up, and three days later, Kieswetter had been parachuted into the 50-over squad for the tour of Bangladesh, with the clear intention of testing his mettle ahead of the Caribbean.
"I sensed what was happening, but I was just trying to enjoy the moment of being an international cricketer," said Kieswetter, who wasted no time in settling in with his new team-mates. He announced himself with a boundary-laden 143 against Bangladesh A in Fatullah, and then, in only his third ODI appearance, he became, at 22 years and 97 days, the second-youngest England batsman after David Gower to score a one-day hundred, as England wrapped up a 3-0 win in Chittagong.
However, the manner in which he scored that breakthrough century came as a surprise to those who had assumed that full throttle was the only pace at which he could bat. Having looked a touch frenetic in his first two appearances on a slow and low surface in Dhaka, he decided to allow himself time to build his final innings of the tour, and came up with a performance of unquestionable maturity. His first fifty runs required 80 deliveries, but his hundred arrived from a further 40, and by the time he was bowled for 107, Flower knew that he had unearthed a batsman with a temperament to match his free-flowing technique.
"I just took the view that I had got three games to prove myself, so I decided I was going to have some fun, and luckily for me, in the third game it paid off," said Kieswetter. "It's probably one of the most satisfactory hundreds that I've got, partly for being my first international hundred, but also for the fact it was a knock that no-one expected or knew that I could produce.
"To do that in only my third ODI, in those conditions, it proved to myself I am good enough, that I want to be here, and that I want to be the best I can be," he added. "It was obviously completely different to what Barbados would be like, but it was a performance that I'll always treasure, because it proved to me that I was able to adapt to different situations, and that is what makes an international cricketer."
Crucially, that innings also instilled in Kieswetter the confidence he needed to carry out a very definitive gameplan, because once the team touched down in the Caribbean, there would be no leeway for personal ambition. From first ball to last, an avoidance of loitering was one of the key aspects of England's trophy-winning campaign, and with Lumb now installed alongside his former Lions team-mate at the top of the order, the England rookies took it upon themselves to set the agenda with a spate of high-octane cameos.
"Go down blazing, those were our orders, without a doubt," said Kieswetter. "To be an opener in Twenty20 cricket is a high-risk environment. You have to be quite selfless, you have to play for the team, and that means that averages and wickets are superfluous to the team needs. But Michael and I were so thrilled to be part of the set-up, because the dressing-room environment was so far from what you'd expect. Everyone was looking to move the team forward, and that made it really easy for us to slip into the roles we needed to play, but also the roles we enjoy playing."
"Even before the tournament started we were quietly confident that we could achieve success, because had a squad in which all the players knew their roles and what they needed to do to help the team achieve," he said. "A player like Luke Wright, who didn't get to bowl all tournament but then had to bowl an over in the final, was a testament to exactly how much hard work had gone into the team, and how much they wanted to play together."
In conventional terms, Lumb and Kieswetter's statistics ended up being fairly run-of-the-mill - 359 runs between them in the tournament at an average of 25.64, with Kieswetter's 63 against Australia being their only half-century in 14 visits to the crease. However, they required just 287 balls to amass that tally, and the speed of their scoring provided the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan the perfect platform from which to dominate the middle overs.
"The fact that both of us were pretty unknown quantities in international cricket gave us both the mentality of being allowed to be free and go out and express ourselves," said Kieswetter. "Also, the fact that we get along very well off the field helped us to click on the field, and get the team off to some really positive starts. But for both of us, we were just really chuffed to be there and to be part of a really addictive environment. We just wanted to enjoy the experience while we were there."
"Enjoyment" isn't a word that has been associated with many England campaigns in ICC events, least of all the World Twenty20, in which the team flopped in both 2007 and 2009. But while Kieswetter's breezy innocence played a significant role in cultivating a new upbeat demeanour, he recognised that the real credit for the team's transformation from also-rans to winners lay with the man who had taken his licks and learnt his lessons from leading the side in the two previous tournaments.
"I was obviously lucky enough to get runs and hit sixes and express myself, but a lot of that was down to the environment that Paul Collingwood managed to create, along with Andy [Flower]," he said. "Colly, he's our leader, everyone in the squad fully backs him, and respects and trusts him, and when we won, it was a real sense of relief, and a justification of the hard work he had put in, and all the abuse that he'd taken in previous World Cups. To be able to achieve that and work with the pressure that he did, we were really proud of him."
After all that he's achieved in the past few weeks, it's incredible to think that Kieswetter has yet to play in front of an English international audience. With no T20Is scheduled until September, it's not immediately obvious when that home debut will come, seeing as Matt Prior is still the man in possession in 50-over and Test cricket. But Kieswetter has already displaced his rival in one format, and already his eyes are drifting towards the prize that is glinting on the horizon this winter.
"I'd love to be on that plane to Australia," he said. "Any English cricketer would love to be heading out for the Ashes, because that has to be the pinnacle for Test cricket. But right now, I have to try not to look too far ahead. Matt's got the gloves, so for me, it's about training hard, putting in my hard graft and aiming for consistent performances for Somerset. I'll be taking each day as it comes, and trying to enjoy myself along the way as well."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo