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February 4, 2009
If Kevin Pietersen ever needs another sponsor he could do worse than go to Mastercard. On Friday, he will find out how much he is worth to an IPL franchise, something in the region of US$2 million is expected, but to England he remains priceless. Given the way he has regained his focus after losing the captaincy, it is even difficult to be too harsh for the ungainly sweep that brought his downfall.
Without him it's hard to know where England would have gone on the opening day of the series. Even Pietersen himself was rooted to his crease against the West Indies spinners for much of his innings, but unlike his team-mates there was always a sense he knew what he was doing.
He was really ticking by the time he took Sulieman Benn for 14 in three balls to move to 97, but trying to reach his century in the grand manner offered a top-edge to Denesh Ramdin. It's harsh to criticise Pietersen, he brings so much to the England team, and is such a thrilling batsman to watch, that falling when playing your natural game shouldn't be a crime. But then there is the match situation to consider, and he rekindled memories of his charge down the pitch to another left-arm spinner, South Africa's Paul Harris, at Edgbaston last summer when he had played supremely to reach 94.
"It's the way I play, I got to 97 playing that way so it just wasn't meant to be. No drama," Pietersen said, although he did then admit two-thirds of his innings were not in his usual style. "On that wicket you have to play situations and I think that's what I've done over the last few years instead of going out there and being dominant."
His battles against Benn added another chapter to his recent duels against left-arm spinners. During the India tour he had his memorable contest with Yuvraj Singh, who dismissed Pietersen in the one-day and Test series. His bravado was severely tested when Yuvraj was brought on in the third over in Mohali with England 2 for 2, but he responded in typical style making 144 and then calling Yuvraj a "pie-chucker". Benn is much better than that, and for much of the day looked it as he had Pietersen repeatedly prodding uncertainly outside off stump.
Each time he marched off for a session break Pietersen wore a serious expression of someone intent on erasing any lingering doubts about his mindset. After tea something clicked and he began to move through his range of shots while also engaging in a touch of eye-balling with Fidel Edwards.
Three more runs would have given him back-to-back centuries following his hundred in Mohali and given what has happened in between it would have been another remarkable demonstration of his willpower. An innings of 97 still does that, but when Pietersen gets out playing such a shot there is a lingering feeling of what might have been.
"I love scoring runs and I love playing for England," he said. "If someone had said to me a month ago when everything was kicking off in England that I'd get 97 today I would have said thank you very much."
He did far more than some of his colleagues managed in a top-order display that did nothing to quell the doubts over their productivity. Andrew Strauss was clearly nervous, but there's no need to panic about a scratchy 7. However, if Alastair Cook produces too many more shots like his pull to mid-on then serious questions will be asked. That then brings us to Ian Bell.
Having typically batted so nicely to reach 28 he played for turn when there wasn't any against Chris Gayle and limply offered the edge. The hang-dog expression which follows so many of his dismissals remained as he trudged off, but he seems unable to do anything to ease the pressure on himself at the moment. It can be a vicious circle; he would no doubt love to just play with complete freedom - and the command of Pietersen - but is battling his inner demons so much that he can't sustain his concentration.
Aside from Pietersen, the batsman who benefited most today was Owais Shah and it's difficult to believe that he would have become as stuck against the spin with his wristy strokeplay. Paul Collingwood struggled to score during his 61-ball innings - a stay that included the first TV referral involving an England batsman - and fell playing an ugly sweep to give Benn nothing more than he deserved.
However, at the end of a tough day England emerged with honours about even, although typically Pietersen saw it in a more positive light. "It is very tough, you can't play as nicely as you would like to on day one of a Test, but the way the wicket's playing and a slow outfield I'd say we are pushing 280-300," he said. "I think we are in a pretty good position, losing five wickets today and knowing that we won't have to bat last."
First, though, England need to add as many as they can to this total. Like Pietersen, every run will be priceless.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?