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Stardust with substance

It is said that bowlers win matches but to watch Kevin Pietersen bat at the top of his game is to watch a match-winning batsman of rare pedigree. He has been accused, and one suspects always will be, of showmanship and a singular devotion to himself, but as long as he can produce match-turning innings as he did at Lord's on the fourth day, his team-mates will be mad to complain.

Pietersen could turn out to be the most unaesthetic of great batsmen. His game is not about balance, poise, economy of movement or grace. Though his movements are exaggerated, the word flourish cannot be applied to his batting in the manner it can be to Brian Lara. He crouches in his stance, bends his knees when the bowler begins his run and shuffles to off and middle at the point of delivery. Only Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Shivnarine Chanderpaul among the current batsmen are as hyperactive and as ungainly at the crease. But from that position he can manoeuvre the ball powerfully in all directions. Though the leg-side shovel remains his signature stroke, he has developed his batting sufficiently to hit boundaries all around the wicket.

Not that he is a slouch between the wickets, but singles and twos are merely tactical options for Pietersen, whose game revolves around hitting boundaries. To state the obvious, boundaries keep the runs coming faster but Pietersen's motives are far darker: he aims for subjugation. In depositing a good-length ball outside off behind midwicket, the message to the bowler is unambiguous: no length or line is safe. When Pietersen gets going, momentum shifts, the rhythm of the match changes; when he is at it for a long enough period, the match often turns in his team's favour.

England were in danger of being bowled out for under 200 today. The Indian bowlers did themselves credit in the morning session. The sun was shining and the conditions were not helpful to swing bowling as they were on the first three days but the Indian medium pacers stuck to a run-denying line, and RP Singh combined some sharp balls with the knack of picking up wickets to reduce England to 132 for five a few minutes before lunch. Considering that England had lost six for 26 in the first innings, India were in with a chance.

As it happened, England lost their last five for 31. In between, though, Matt Prior stayed with Pietersen long enough after lunch for England to add 120 runs in 25 overs. Prior wasn't a spectator, but the session after lunch bore Pietersen's stamp. His game is based far more on calculation than on instinct and he picked his spots surgically. RP Singh was hit to cover and flicked to fine leg, Sreesanth was wristily despatched to midwicket and the hundred came with three emphatic hits in one over from Anil Kumble. The second, a straight six, took him from 93 to 99, and it spoke of a man with the confidence to live on the edge.

It's that ability to live on the edge and bring his best game to play when the match is on the line that has come to define Pietersen

It's that ability to live on the edge and bring his best game to play when the match is on the line that has come to define Pietersen. His first century came when a series - not just any series but the Ashes - was on the line. England had to bat out of their skins on the last day of the series to save the Oval Test and win back the Ashes and were five down at lunch. Pietersen ended up with 158 off 187 balls, which featured breathtaking strokes against Shane Warne and Brett Lee, Australia's best bowlers in the match and in the series.
His second hundred, 100 off 137 balls, came when England were in trouble in Faisalabad chasing Pakistan's 462, and his fourth, 142 against Sri Lanka at Edgbaston came in a team score of 295. Muttiah Muralitharan dismissed him four times in the series, the last occasion precipitating a collapse that cost England the Test, but Pietersen dominated him otherwise, taking 134 runs off 158 balls he faced from him.

In an age where batsmen resort to pretensions of playing a stroke while defending against spinners, Pietersen does it the old fashioned way, the bat distinctly in front of the pad. This makes for an interesting contest between him and Kumble. Pietersen is forever looking to come down the pitch against spinners but Kumble is not an easy bowler to come down to. And where Kumble is forever seeking to trap tentative batsmen lbw, Pietersen is unlikely to present his pad to him.

At the end of the fourth day, the irony was hard to miss. Sachin Tendulkar, the slayer of spinners in his pomp and who famously, even if in jest, inscribed "Once in a blue moon, mate, never again" on the ball with which Monty Panesar had got him lbw the first time, fell the same way once again, his bat tucked behind his pad. It was only a couple of hours after Pietersen had dealt with Kumble, India's greatest matchwinner, with a swagger.

It's early still to draw comparisons but this much can be said about Pietersen: give him a stage and give him a challenge and he'll be up to it. Make no mistake about it, here's greatness in the making.