KP stocks still on the rise
It was with splendid timing that the producer of Channel 5's cricket coverage called for the graphics that display the list of England's highest run-scorers in Test match cricket. Kevin Pietersen had just gone past Colin Cowdrey and was shown to be nipping at the heels of his captain, Alastair Cook. The figure was 7626.
Two balls later it had moved, like a irresistible commodity, to 7638. A good day indeed to buy KP and, as if to celebrate this improved position in the market, the commodity skipped down to Nathan Lyon, cleared its left hip out of the road and planted an offbreak into the bleachers at wide long-on. Next ball it did much the same, hitting straighter but with equal brutality and even greater distance. The old one-two and the contest with Lyon was over. There had been some polite jostling for position: the trade of a block here and inside edge there for a late cut and a midwicket shovel. But the negotiations were now over. In two hits, the rules of the game had moved on. Man was now playing boy. The market screamed its approval, the bars emptied.
I suppose we should have known. At 11.36am Jonathan Trott nicked a cracking delivery from Ryan Harris and England's No. 4 batsman, at five due to the nightwatchman, reached for gloves and helmet to begin his day. Or should we say, his series. He has been in the nets each morning, tinkering away, waiting for this. The longer Michael Clarke batted, the more certain a Pietersen performance became. As Ronaldo inspires Messi and Woods motivates Mickleson, so Clarke moved Pietersen to a committment. Not required at Trent Bridge or Lord's, where England's batting barely changed gear, it was time to remind everyone who was boss.
The surprise when you meet Pietersen is his size. He is a tall man, slim but built very strong. Flecks of grey run through his short hair and the face hints at days in the sun. He squints and stretches his mouth and, by nature, fidgets a little. His walk to the crease is brisk and his guard unimposing. Those six feet and four inches are reduced in their impression by the exaggerated flex of his knees, which set him low and ready for battle. It is not until he plays a scoring stroke that any real authority is implied. It is not until he plays a few in a row that the feathers begin their preening. It took KP a while to preen today, so single-minded was his vision.
He is at his best when he plays in straight lines, driving down the ground from that big stride forward. It is a kind of march and echoes Matthew Hayden, who seemed to be telling the bowler to get out of the damn way. Pietersen is less obviously cocky than Hayden but more obviously wedded to his own self-belief. Thus Hayden bullied his opponents while Pietersen toys with them. Some of the strokes he plays are just daft in their invention. The swivel pull for example that drove Dale Steyn to despair at Headingley last summer and the outrageous slog-sweeps that confounded even Shane Warne. This invention, the great sense of the unknown, makes for incredible theatre.
There was a wonder to the news that this thoroughly modern man out of Natal, South Africa had passed Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge, for they could hardly be more different. Cowdrey would have delighted in the sparkle that Pietersen brings to cricket and the entertainment he provides. He would have dropped him a short, simple hand-written note of congratulation and urged him to go on and on, to play the great game until the sun set upon his enthusiasm.
Heaven knows when that might be for KP is an unpredictable fellow. At his dismissal, the walk back to the dressing room was broken by a turn to face the crowd who stood in adoration. He raised his bat to each corner of Manchester, pausing as he did so like an old actor who was leaving the stage. One former England player said, "That's it, he will not be back". I had a fiver with him. The suggestion is that the Ashes in Australia will be the last matches that Pietersen plays in an England shirt. I refuse to believe it, as much as anything because I don't want to. But he is an unpredictable fellow.
This hundred was by no means his best. Like others in blue helmets, he played and missed and edged to third man, but, of course, he lives on thrill hill and is able to ride the mistakes with moments that marvel. The contest with Shane Watson was an epic of this type, each man having their say in a series of exasperated responses to the fortune that followed them. When Darren Lehmann poked his head out of the Australian dressing room to confirm an lbw shout that Australia had not reviewed, Pietersen simply smiled. Sometimes, it just is your day.
With Cowdrey, Walter Hammond and Andrew Strauss already in his wake, Cook was the next to go. The records of these two opposite cricketers are strangely parallel. In 97 Test matches, Pietersen now has 7697 runs at 48.71. In 95 matches, Cook has 7669 at 48.53. And there, in the bare stats, the similarity ends. But they need each other. Their partnership in Mumbai last November was a classic and a game breaker. Theirs is a perfect dovetail, the only question is for how long it will last. The new captain did the lion's share of winning the Pietersen faith back in the dressing room. Let us hope he is rewarded with a year or two more of the magic.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK