September 4, 2013

Anatomy of a maverick

How Pietersen's unique batting style makes him one of the most difficult batsmen to bowl to

If a cricket aficionado were to pay to watch a contemporary player bat, Kevin Pietersen would likely be at the top of his wishlist.

Pietersen might have looked vulnerable against some left-arm spinners in the past, but when he gets going he's simply unstoppable. In an age when not many batsmen can instil fear in a bowler's mind, Pietersen's stocks are rising by the day.

In the second innings of the Oval Test, Pietersen was, once again, in his element and dominated the Australian attack. He not only scored runs but also established his supremacy in a manner that made the bowlers look helpless.

His charge down the track accentuates his big frame; his audacity in moving around the crease makes bowlers revise their plans in the middle of their run-up; and then he tops it with an unparalleled ability to find holes in the field.

His style makes him one of the most difficult batsmen to bowl at. He's quick to use his feet to the spinners, to get to the pitch of the ball, and to use his height to get on top of the bounce when the fast bowlers dig it in short. And he's never shy of playing unorthodox shots or taking the aerial route.

Let's start with his slightly unusual stance, where his feet are wider apart than for most modern-day batsmen. While this stance provides more stability, there is the danger of sacrificing mobility, for most players, but Pietersen's brilliance lies in how he has found a way around it - his forward-press is quite predominant, to the extent that he often walks towards the bowler, but he is seldom hurried by quick short-pitched stuff. Most bowlers dig it in short when they see a batsman charge towards them, but Pietersen seems to have all the time in the world even when the distance between him and the bowler reduces.

While some of it has to do with his natural ability to pick the line and length a shade earlier than the rest, a lot of it is about him putting in the hours to practise playing everything on the front front, even against the quickest bowlers. Once he has lunged forward, he doesn't try to get onto the back foot, even if the bowler has pitched it short, and that ensures he doesn't get into odd positions. That's when his height comes to his rescue too, for he manages to stay on top of the bounce on most occasions in spite of having a long front-foot stride.

His style of playing attacking shots - off the front foot to fast bowlers - helps him hit balls in areas that have been left unprotected. For instance, in an earlier Ashes match, Mitchell Starc had a midwicket and a square leg for the whip off the front foot - if he bowled fuller - and off the back foot if he went a little short. But Pietersen played a short ball off the front foot a lot earlier than he would have played it off the back foot, and managed to hit it between the two fielders. Placing the ball is all about the point of impact, and if you can change it effectively, you will hit the gaps often: that's exactly what Pietersen does on either side of the pitch.

Pietersen has natural ability to pick the line and length a shade earlier than the rest, but a lot of it is about him putting in the hours to practise playing everything on the front front, even against the quickest bowlers

He also walks across the stumps, almost taunting the bowlers to bowl straight and hit the pads. Little do the bowlers who walk into his trap know that he seldom misses the ball. And even when he does, he has come so far across that the impact is invariably outside off stump. Here too, his regulation shots go into the gap and not to the fielders. For example, if the ball is full and slightly outside off, most batsmen would hit an off-drive towards mid-off but Pietersen will probably walk across and play an on-drive. And since his on-drive is played from outside off, it goes between the bowler and mid-on.

While Pietersen is always lunging forward to fast bowlers, he's a completely different package against spinners. He latches on to every opportunity to dance down the track, at times even when the ball isn't flighted, for he wants to make his intentions known. His stepping out, thanks to his height, is a little different from that of others - he covers more ground than most. As a result, he not only forces the bowler to radically cut down on flight but also finds gaps because he is playing so far down the pitch. The moment the bowler errs and pitches short, expecting the batsman to step out, Pietersen goes deep in the crease to hit powerful shots off the back foot.

He is one of those batsmen who encourages a lot of kids to pick up the bat and learn the craft, but they would be wiser if they didn't try to emulate him, for his brand of cricket comes with a disclaimer "Try it at your own peril."

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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