England, a fertile soil for Proteas

Kevin Pietersen, skipper Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior, all South African-born, have added value to an England team that has a hoary past but failed to chart a strong surge to the top slot. Unfettered by history's baggage and nursing the spirit of adventure that is so inherent in the South African wilds, the four players have changed the way England plays the game that it invented, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A riveting career gained a second wind in an air rich with history and awe that permeates Lord's. Kevin Pietersen's unbeaten 202 against India in the first Test at cricket's home was a mix of initial obduracy, middle consolidation and final flourish. These traits were largely missing in his earlier forays that were highlighted by the rapid fifth gear and the quick retreat.

Batsmen with outrageous talent love to immediately dominate the bowlers. It is a pattern that has lingered across generations, be it Sir Vivian Richards or contemporaries like Virender Sehwag and Pietersen. Sehwag had admitted in an interview about how Sunil Gavaskar had asked him to give the first half hour to the bowlers before lashing his shots.

At Lord's in a Test with its staggering sub-text of numbers — 2000th Test, 100th between India and England and Sachin Tendulkar hovering close to 100 International hundreds — Pietersen managed to stay calm. He lived up to that holy-grail that batsmen at times tend to forget — ‘the most important thing is the next ball.' Living in the ‘here and now' is easier said than done but Pietersen managed that in a wonderful innings that laid to rest past doubts and misplaced whispers about a talent on the wane.

He tided past the questions raised by Zaheer Khan until injury forced the left-arm seamer out. He also stayed alert to M. S. Dhoni's gentle seamers, not an easy task considering that even the great Tendulkar struggled against someone like Hansie Cronje in the past. Fortunately a referral ruled out the possibility of a snick against Dhoni and Pietersen marched ahead and braved past a wily Praveen Kumar to finally put an end to a three-year drought at home.

Pietersen did score a 227 at Adelaide last December to set up an England victory but the lack of big runs in Old Blighty since 2008 remained a worry that weighed him down. Thankfully that deficit was finally overcome through his 18th Test hundred and later he said: “I have never had to work harder. With the conditions I batted in yesterday (first day), and having to face Dhoni for half an hour as well, I reckon it's right up there with the hundreds I have scored. They bowled really well in swinging conditions and the pitch was seaming as well. I was missing balls by a couple of inches on occasions. It was real hard graft.”

Graft is not a word that usually defines Pietersen but his latest stint revealed that he is not averse to subjugate his ego and grit his way past testing sessions. It surely is a reassuring new trait for a batsman who warmed British hearts when he strode onto the global stage with a stirring show (473 runs from five Tests) in the Ashes that England won 2-1 during 2005. Somehow in the following years, Pietersen lost his way a bit. A captaincy interlude marred by a spat with the then coach Peter Moores, injury woes and an inability to stretch cameos into strong edifices meant that the halo was chipped away.

Strife, largely within his mind, is not something that is new to Pietersen. Ever since he shifted from Natal in South Africa and sought greener pastures in the land of his ancestors, the dapper player had to suffer needless barbs like ‘turn-coat', ‘show-boat' and other insinuations.

Pietersen stayed firm on the path towards greatness that seemed pre-ordained with his old mate at Hampshire — Shane Warne — adding to the chorus when he wrote in his book about 100 great players: “There is no doubt in my mind that Kevin Pietersen can become the best batsman in the world. There will be no doubt in his mind, either. He's not far away now! He has bags of confidence, and, let's be honest, he has a lot to be confident about. As long as he keeps his feet on the ground and remembers all the bits and pieces that go along with playing in a team rather than an individual sport, then there is no limit to what he can achieve.”

The early days of streaked hair and forays into the page three circuit has been toned down and beneath the cricketer's exterior is a heart that understands the world and the larger scheme of things. “Thoughts go out to all those injured and who lost loved ones in Mumbai today. Such a great city, sad to see,” he tweeted after the recent bomb blasts in India's commercial capital.

Pietersen's story has also found welcome echoes in the England squad through the exploits of skipper Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior. The four men as diverse as they get are bound by their places of birth in South Africa. Pietersen (Pietermaritzburg), Trott (Cape Town), Strauss (Johannesburg) and Prior (Johannesburg) reflect a reverse migration of especially cricketers from South Africa to England. Some have moved as children tagging with their parents and some like Pietersen and Trott opted to fly into Heathrow as adults who nursed that fierce desire to make it big in international cricket while remaining wary of the quota-system upsetting their chances of turning out for the Proteas.

Whatever be their motives, the quartet has added value to a team that has a hoary past but failed to chart a strong surge to the top slot. Unfettered by history's baggage and nursing the spirit of adventure that is so inherent in the South African wilds, the four players have changed the way England plays the game that it invented. They are not the pioneers though as in the past England has had players like Basil D'Oliveira, Tony Greig, Allan Lamb and Robin Smith who were forced to discard their South African roots and did well for the land of their forefathers.

The South African influx of big strong men with boundless energy is just a pointer to the melting pot that the United Kingdom has become over the years. In a nation where chicken tikka masala remains an eternal favourite and one that had its phases of players from distant shores adding might to its cricketing spine like the Caribbean influx through the likes of Devon Malcolm, Gladstone Small, Phillip DeFreitas and Chris Lewis, the latest episode of Pietersen and company is just another step in the socio-evolutionary pathway.

Moving away from identity and patriotic strains, it is a fact that Pietersen has truly added allure to a team that largely followed the road-map carved by doughty men like Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch while Ian Botham, David Gower and Andrew Flintoff remained ebullient exceptions. The cricketing world needs Pietersen to flower and grab new fans and through his stint at Lord's despite the stumble against Ishant Sharma in the second innings, the 31-year old has proved that he can be written off only if the critic has a fondness for eating his or her own words.