England v South Africa, Super Eights, Barbados April 16, 2007

England pin their hopes on Pietersen factor



'He wasn't born a great batsman but he has set about acquiring greatness with a single-minded focus.' © Getty Images

It is incredible how it has come to this. South Africa came to the tournament ranked number one and tomorrow they will fight to stay in the tournament against a team that is yet to win a match against major opposition but still has a chance to sneak through to the semi-final. England, many would argue, have no business to be in the last four but, after the sensational turnaround in the Commonwealth Bank Series in which they upstaged Australia, even the cynical English journalists are not ruling anything out.

The tournament has played out to a strange pattern so far. Australia have shown themselves to be far ahead but, even though Sri Lanka have emerged as worthy contenders, the hierarchy is still fuzzy. Ireland have beaten Bangladesh who have beaten South Africa who have beaten Sri Lanka who have beaten New Zealand who have beaten South Africa. England, by the way, have beaten both Bangladesh and Ireland, and that's the only reason why they are still alive.

But the time for favours is over - and Bangladesh have done almost everyone a huge favour by beating South Africa - and England must now rely only on themselves. They must win not only to keep themselves in the tournament but, from a neutral perspective, to keep the tournament alive - a win for them will keep even the West Indians in the frame.

And for deliverance they will look, once more, towards a man who emerged from the coastal lands of South Africa to infuse new life into English cricket. Kevin Pietersen is officially the world's number one one-day batsman and a man South Africa love to hate but have come to fear.

This has been billed as a grudge match and Pietersen, more than anyone else, is responsible for that. Ever since his high-profile defection, he has never concealed his disaffection for his previous homeland and Graeme Smith, the South African captain, has borne the brunt of the derision. "He's a bloke who needs the game but hasn't got any friends in it," Pietersen wrote about Smith in his autobiography published last year, rounding it off by saying, "I don't speak to him because I don't have any respect for him."

Smith kept his composure today when asked about Pietersen at the pre-match press conference. "I haven't met him for a while", he said with a straight face as the media guffawed, but it is no secret whom the South African will be targeting on the field on Tuesday. Smith, who famously complained about Australian sledging early in his career, is no saint himself when it comes to whispering a word or two on the field but he must consider the implications of giving Pietersen the verbal treatment. Evidence suggests Pietersen is at his most dangerous when roused.



'He is unique in the sense that, unlike the less gifted, Pietersen has chosen not the path of graft and grind but to impose himself ' © Getty Images
South Africa would have certainly not forgotten the impact he had on them a couple of years ago in the most adverse of circumstances. Facing hostile crowds and batting for a losing team, he reeled off three blistering hundreds, including a 69-ball 104 as England came within seven runs of South Africa's 311. He amassed 451 runs in that series at an average of 151.33. The weight of responsibility has slowed him down somewhat but Pietersen loves the big stage and the attention it brings, and the sight of the old enemy in a must-win match will surely stir him.

England's batting has been feeble in the tournament so far. Their openers have been absent and, barring Paul Nixon, they have had no lower order. It has been left to Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood, apart from Pietersen, to first salvage and then push towards respectability. Pietersen is clearly England's leading run scorer, but he has not set the tournament alight yet.

His 340 runs have come at 56.83, which is almost at par with his career average, but at a strike rate of 77.14, well below his career figure of 91.18. He has hit only four sixes, and the last 54 runs of his 104 against Australia consumed 73 balls and contained only one four. He was perhaps slowed down by the loss of wickets at the other end and some excellent bowling from Glenn McGrath and Nathan Bracken, but Pietersen has rarely let other factors inhibit him and England will need him to come out blazing against South Africa tomorrow.

Pietersen was recently compared to Viv Richards but, numbers aside, there can be no comparison because their games could not have been any more different. Richards was a natural from start to finish. Everything about Pietersen - his strut, his various hairstyles, his tattoos and his overt show of affection towards his adopted country - is manufactured. And so is his cricket.

He wasn't born a great batsman but he has set about acquiring greatness with a single-minded focus. He is unique in the sense that, unlike the less gifted, Pietersen has chosen not the path of graft and grind but to impose himself on the game and to dominate the bowlers rather than wear them out. There is no effortlessness in his batting. His signature strokes - the shovel towards leg and the charge against the quicks - are elaborate productions. That he has managed to carry them off time and time again is the clearest sign that he is much more than bluff.

He has endured many tests of character in his short career so far and Tuesday will bring another big challenge. England need a miracle and the World Cup needs a hero.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine

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