Pietersen restates value to England
A year ago, England thought they could do without Kevin Pietersen. They thought that the baggage he carries outweighs the gifts he brings; that his ability on the pitch was negated by the problems in the dressing room; that there were players in county cricket who could compensate for his absence.
It was nonsense, of course. As England proved when they launched a half-baked defence of their World Twenty20 title last September without the man who led them to the title in 2010, Pietersen remains indispensible. He is not only the best batsman in this team, he might just be the best batsman England have ever had.
If that sounds excessive, it is worth reflecting that, during the course of this innings, Pietersen became England's most prolific run-scorer in the history of international cricket - a tally that combines all formats of the game - surpassing the record of Graham Gooch. Such statistics never tell the whole story, but they do tell a tale of consistent excellence across all formats of the game.
It was exactly a year ago that we saw the most obvious demonstration of the best and the worst of Pietersen. A majestic 149 against South Africa at Leeds was counterbalanced by the revelation that he had exchanged less-than-flattering messages about his captain, Andrew Strauss, with members of the opposition and behaved in a manner that did not always encourage team harmony on the pitch and in the dressing room. "It's not easy being me in that dressing room," Pietersen memorably complained in the post-match media conference.
Yet it so often looks remarkably easy to be Kevin Pietersen on the pitch. While his team-mates, the sublime Ian Bell apart, stuttered against Australia's admirable bowling attack and the mounting pressure of the situation, Pietersen showed dedication and discipline - not qualities that are always associated with his batting - as well as characteristic skill in steering his side away from the rocks.
This was not vintage Pietersen. Bell, late cutting beautifully and using his feet to the spin in a manner that would have made even Michael Clarke proud, looked the more accomplished player throughout their 115-run stand. Pietersen, by contrast, played and missed often, not least a nervous swipe outside off stump before he had scored, and was fortune that Australia did call for a review of a leg-before shout when he was on 62.
But those near misses might have helped Pietersen. Once set, he is prone to extravagance - hubris, even - but the near-misses provided the jolt he required to concentrate anew; to demand more of himself and remind him that the team required more.
Even if this innings was not, compared to the mastery of Mumbai or the carnage of Colombo, as eye-catching or inspiring, in terms of context of the match and the series, this was a highly impressive performance. For it was an innings not just based around Pietersen's natural skills - his hand-eye coordination, his reach, his range of stokes, all though there was evidence of all those qualities - but around the match situation and the requirements of his team.
"This innings will mean a lot more if it gets us a draw or a win on day five," he said afterwards. "It's nice to have personal achievements, but it will only mean something if we get something out of the game.
"It's the big stage. I like to perform on the big stage when the team need me. I like to stand up and be counted. As an English or Australian player your career is defined in how you play in Ashes cricket."
Such words are fine, but actions are far more revealing. Here, exactly a year after he was dismissed for his lack of team spirit, Pietersen reined in his natural instincts to leave the ball well, play straighter than is his wont and resist all those natural urges to attack and destroy to provide the contribution that team - a sometimes not-so-grateful team - required. He took them, just as he did at The Oval in 2005, a step closer to retaining the Ashes. And there really is not much more an England batsman can do than that.
You get more with Pietersen, though. You get rasping pull strokes off the seamers and fearless hitting down the ground off the spinners. And, to bring up his century, he lifted a short ball over cover in imperious fashion. Even at his most restrained, he is magnificent.
That England have not made this match safe already is due to a few factors. Firstly Australia, after taking advantage of winning the toss, have bowled and batted very well; secondly, due to another poor decision by the TV umpire that saw Pietersen incorrectly adjudged leg-before to a ball he had hit; and thirdly due to the continuing fragility of others in the England top-order.
While Alastair Cook's relatively modest form can be overlooked - he has been through this before and has earned the right to a great deal of patience - there is more concern about the ongoing problems of Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root in their respective positions.
Root has enjoyed a fine start to his international career and, such is the faith that the selectors have in him, is sure to win a lengthy trial at the top of the order. But it is worth remembering that, even when he made his century at Lord's, he survived an early edge past the keeper that should have been taken and suggests he is yet to conquer his issues with the new ball outside off stump. Had he been caught, he would have failed to make 50 in seven innings as an opening batsman for England.
Bairstow remains unconvincing. He adds dynamism in the field and clearly has ability as a stroke-making batsman that, aged 23, may develop into something more tangible. But he will have to learn greater patience and discipline outside off stump if he is to enjoy a successful career at Test level. At present it is simply too easy to dismiss him.
Australia provided an example of the value of an allrounder in the line-up. Shane Watson's miserly 15 overs not only eased the burden on the main seamers, but maintained control throughout an attritional day. England could do with such an option, though there are caveats with all three of their own all-round options - Ravi Bopara, Ben Stokes and Rikki Clarke - but each of them would add a bowling alternative while hardly reducing the amount of runs coming from the No. 6 position at present. Bairstow, it should be noted, currently averages 31.37 in his 11th Test; slightly fewer than Nick Compton (31.93) when he was dropped.
England feel they can do without an allrounder at present. But what days like this underline once again is that they cannot do without Pietersen. It is to the benefit of the individual and the team that a way has been found to manage and accommodate him. Talents like this emerge very rarely.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo