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England's most flamboyant batsman played an innings that showcased his less-obvious qualities and was more reminiscent of the man whose run tally he surpassed on day one in Melbourne
George Dobell at the MCG
December 26, 2013
Can Jonny Bairstow make the grade?
It was ironic that, on the day Kevin Pietersen surpassed Geoff Boycott's Test run tally, he should provide a more than passable imitation of England's famously patient batsman.
Boycott, whose concentration and denial helped him to 8114 Test runs, had labelled the altogether more aggressive Pietersen a "mug" for the manner of his dismissals in this series and called for him to be dropped ahead of this game.
But while Pietersen's team-mates again struggled to withstand another wonderfully disciplined display from the Australian attack, Pietersen resisted for nearly 60 overs to help England bat throughout the day and retain modest hopes of registering a competitive first-innings total.
While the rest of the top-order had their technical or temperamental flaws exposed, Pietersen showcased his less obvious qualities: his desire, his application and his determination. Without his contribution, England might well have been bowled out for under 200 in their first innings for the third time in the series.
Only three men - Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart and David Gower - have now scored more Test runs for England than Pietersen and none have an average as high. He also surpassed Boycott's run tally in 15 fewer innings. With such statistics, it is understandable that Pietersen might scratch his head and wonder why he receives so much criticism.
This might, at first glance, have appeared an out of character innings. He scored well below his career strike-rate - 44 compared to 62 over his career - and found the boundary only five times (four fours and one six) in 152 balls at the crease. He resisted being drawn into strokes outside the off stump - he has scored only 19 of his runs on the off side - he did not take the bait offered by Nathan Lyon to hit the ball in the air and, though most of his runs came off his legs, he generally played straight and waited for the poor ball. He sometimes had to wait a very long time.
But in reality, Pietersen has batted in similar fashion for most of this series. The manner of his dismissals - he has tended to be dismissed as a result of somewhat flamboyant strokes - may have given another impression, but he has scored his runs at a rate of only 49 per 100 balls and has battled long and hard for the few runs he has scored. Against an impressively tight attack and on a relatively sluggish pitch and outfield, it is not surprising that his run-rate dropped a little further.
The main difference between this innings and those earlier in the series was simply fortune. Here, Pietersen, frustrated by the tight bowling and looking to relieve the pressure, was reprieved twice after aggressive strokes offered catching opportunities; on other occasions his momentary loss of concentration has proved more damaging.
It would be easy to say that England were overly cautious. Easy and largely unfair. The truth is Australia bowled exceptionally well and England, in showing the application that has not always been obvious in this series, were forced to proceed with caution. Indeed, a strong case could be made to suggest they should have been more cautious. Alastair Cook and Joe Root were both lured into playing at balls they could have left.
|When he plays his natural game, he is being reckless, but when he grinds out runs, he is surrendering the initiative. It really isn't easy being KP.|
It's not hard to understand why Pietersen becomes frustrated with his critics. He can't win: when he plays his natural, positive game, he is accused of being reckless and selfish, but when he reins himself in and grinds out runs, he is accused of surrendering the initiative. It really isn't easy being KP.
The most revealing moment of Pietersen's innings might not have been his battle with a bowler as much as his battle with nausea. Moments after having been dropped for the second time, the result of a fierce pull that George Bailey was unable to cling on to at midwicket, Pietersen held up play for several minutes to call for a drink of water after appearing to retch just feet away from the pitch.
Perhaps Pietersen really was unwell. Perhaps he had swallowed one of the many flies that are in Melbourne at present. The insect does not feature in England's tour dietary guide, after all.
But it may well have been that Pietersen needed to prove to himself that his rash stroke was not simply an error of judgement. Like a boxer convincing themselves of their invincibility, Pietersen may have required such a tactic in order to convince himself - and, perhaps, the record-breaking crowd - that the momentary loss of concentration was not entirely his fault. He may have required such a tactic to find the renewed energy and belief for the struggle that confronted him. Either way, he soon recovered.
"He wasn't at his most fluent," Ian Bell, England's new vice-captain now Matt Prior has been dropped, said afterwards. "But it's great to see him scrap it out. The intent is always to score runs and put pressure on the bowlers. But Australia were very good and runs weren't the easiest.
"He is still there in the morning and if he has a good couple of hours then things can change very quickly. If you could choose one guy to go out there in the morning and get us to a competitive score, it would be him.
"But it's disappointing that most of our top six have made starts and not gone on. That's been a trend for a while now.
"It's massively frustrating. As a batter, you can take it when you're knocked over early as that can happen to anyone. But when you get in and you've done the hard work and then get out, it hurts a lot more. That's the time you should kick-on. It's been a habit for a while now and we need to score big runs."
Partly due to his dedication and partly due to some fortune, Pietersen survives to see England into day two. He will never win over all his critics but here, at least, his determination and desire to fight for the team cause could not be doubted.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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