December 3, 2013

Pietersen's hour

He and the rest of England's top players will have to stand up and be counted in Adelaide

Adelaide. The picturesque, romantic venue for the second Test. It's the perfect place for the ugliness displayed in Brisbane to vanish. Adelaide simply conjures up nice thoughts.

Much like its people: centred, easy-paced, loving and wise. The garden city, the city of churches and flowing streams, flat lands and parks, nearby beaches and wine havens. In many ways it's the hub of Australia, bringing together a peace from the west and the east.

Much like its cricket ground, Adelaide Oval, which has a shape ideal for cricket, fresh green embankments and old traditions; and additions in the form of its new mask and drop-in pitch.

Times have changed, as they should. For me my memory will always announce that Adelaide Oval in full glory of a Test match, with a packed house, is the finest sight I have ever seen in cricket, in sport.

And the people who made the Oval their home, from New Zealand's Clarrie Grimmett, who settled in South Australia in the 1920s, to Vic Richardson, the Chappells, David Hookes, of course, and in the present, Darren Lehmann. These are hardy souls, strong characters, resilient soldiers, joyful jokers and top blokes.

Yet beneath this loving, peaceful, sparkling, joyful place, where characters lurk with positive intent, lies a dark story that changed the game.

Bodyline. Adelaide, 1933. The scene was the third Ashes Test, second day. The series at 1-1, yet the mood had swung towards England, and in particular Douglas Jardine, the masterful schemer.

Under Jardine was Harold Larwood, the greatest fast bowler of his time. Under hot skies and a fever building among the locals in the stands, Larwood struck the stoic Australian skipper, Bill Woodfull, under the heart. Bodyline was born.

Then on day three, Bert Oldfield, the tiny but resolute keeper, failed to negotiate a fast lifter from Larwood and top-edged it into his skull. Down he went and out came Woodfull. He strode in full suit towards the middle, where his devoted keeper lay bleeding. Woodfull said nothing; he saved it till later. And when he did speak, the words were heard all around the cricketing world.

While receiving treatment Woodfull was confronted by Pelham Warner, the England manager. Woodfull said the famous words: "There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not." The look of cricket changed from that moment on. New laws were introduced; fast bowlers became the central attraction, and the game slowed down for good, but for the worse.

Last week in Brisbane, two teams were out there and only one team played winning cricket. Australia. They won at a canter. As they left their kill lying still, they pointed a finger that said, "And there is more to come in Adelaide."

Since that moment they haven't backed off one bit, with each and every Australian united in wanting more blood.

Pietersen's overall strength is his mental belief, his acceptance of himself. His weakness, on occasion, is not switching on each and every day

The blood, I believe, that Australia want most is that of a South African: Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen is a unique man, one who polarises opinion yet commands that all of us watch his every move. He is egomaniacal, brash and dismissive, although his softly spoken words paint a thoughtful and pleasant side. It's not dissimilar to his batting style: dismissive and lordly when on top, quiet and thoughtful when dismissed. Throughout his career he has stolen the breath away, or left you shaking your head in frustration. He is your typical flawed genius. That's why he continues to be the absolute key.

When he walks out to bat at Adelaide Oval, a place he knows quite well, given his double-century three years ago, all eyes will be on him. He will carry the urn on his shoulders at that moment. After playing exactly 100 Tests for his adopted country, he will feel the weight of a nation. He will feel the weight that laid Trott low. He will feel the weight of his whole being. This Test will test him like none of the previous 100.

The eyes will then turn to those wearing baggy green. How will they act? What will be their first move? Will they sledge, point, crowd, or attack? Or will Australia freeze?

Hardly. They are so immersed in fending off another failure that they have morphed, quite suddenly, into a fireball with no boundaries. It will blaze until the end of the SCG Test and no sooner. Even if they are 4-0 up, they will breathe fire until the job is complete.

With Craig McDermott, their fine bowling coach, masterminding their strategy, Australia will test Pietersen's off stump with a full length. They will bring him forward early and that's where Pietersen must be tight. He must show a will to play late and ultra-straight.

Pietersen is a player of great innings, of that there is no doubt. Is he a great player? For many he probably is already. For me, this is his stage right now. In Adelaide. This is where he cements his name in folklore forever. His double-century here came when England were firing on all cylinders. Now they are misfiring in parts, requiring urgent road service. To have a chance they must demand that their senior men - Cook, Prior, Pietersen, Anderson and Swann - pick up their games quick-smart.

Pietersen's overall strength is his mental belief, his acceptance of himself. It's to be admired, for it allows him to rise above any doubt. His weakness, on occasion, is not switching on each and every day: not an easy assignment in a world of packed schedules and unrelenting expectations. Pietersen needs time to build the inspiration, the energy. When he is truly switched on, he plays straight and late to start, setting the tone before utilising his reach and range of strokes.

When in the zone, he is truly attracted to the ball, its every movement and twitch. On his day he has an answer for any bowler, on any pitch. He has played many a fine hand when inspired. In Brisbane he expired too quickly. Maybe the challenge hadn't raised him enough. Maybe, from Clarke's final act to Trott's departure, he has found another gear?

The fever pitch is mounting, England need inspiration fast. It's now or never.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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