He aced them all

AP

Kevin Pietersen showed at Lord’s what he has shown every time he has been challenged in his young Test career — that he has the belief and the ability to play his natural game, or what has come to become his natural game, when everthing is on the line, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

The first Test at Lord’s between India and England did much for cricket. It showed that worries that the game was in a state of decadence brought about by commercialism may be allayed if the game returned to its first principles. Cricket must remain an even contest between bat and ball. Not only does it make for an attractive, dramatic spectacle, it gives performances a certain authenticity.

Mick Hunt’s cricket wicket had old timers muttering “Propah crickey” into their cake, and English captain Michael Vaughan endorsed the opinion.

“I’ve always believed that a 300-350 wicket makes for the best cricket, and this was an excellent wicket,” said Vaughan. “You really have to work hard for your runs. You have to fight for them, it’s proper Test cricket.”

The difficulty of the conditions — and the authenticity it confers on performances — established, it’s instructive to view Kevin Pietersen’s 134, the innings that nearly gave England victory. But for poor light and rain that afflicted the match at tea on the final day, England would have taken the one wicket it needed to go up 1-0. It’s a pity the elements obstructed a result — from Pietersen’s perspective that is — for a decidedly match-turning innings went unrewarded. It’s cruelly ironic that the man evolving into one of the greatest match-winning batsmen of this generation has, thus far, an unremarkable record in this regard: only three of Pietersen’s nine Test hundreds have been in winning causes. It goes to show how tough it is for a batsman to impact a game without his bowlers chipping in; and how difficult it is to establish an innings as match-winning.

Surely, Pietersen’s first hundred — his blood and thunder 187-ball 158 — against Australia with the Ashes on the edge was a defining feat. But, coming as it did in the second innings to save the game, it can’t be credited as match-winning.

Perhaps, we have the yardstick all wrong. Perhaps, it isn’t the number of match-winning innings that define greatness — though it helps — but the more generic response to adversity. Pietersen showed at Lord’s what he has shown every time he has been challenged in his young Test career — that he has the belief and the ability to play his natural game, or what has come to become his natural game, when everything is on the line.

This is a remarkable ability to possess, and one that is under-appreciated. How many times have we seen athletes perform exceptionally only to shrink at a decisive stage? Pietersen’s proven ability to back his game is what sets him apart, not his talent.

Little wonder he made friends with Shane Warne. Cricket writers who fancy themselves as amateur psychologists have pointed to a sense of validation both men seem to require. Which really is just a judgmental and fancy way of saying they are kindred spirits.

Pietersen came to the Lord’s Test with much stacked against him. He had admitted on BBC Radio that he was burnt out after nearly five months of continuous cricket, which naturally was blown up; his five-day break in Monaco with his pop-star fiancé Jessica Taylor before the Test drew derisive smirks; and in his last eight innings he had made just 123 runs.

Controversy sought him in the first innings. He was waved back by his mates on the Pavilion when replays of Dhoni’s catch looked dodgy. All the incident showed was that the technology was insufficient and that the umpires have slipped in handling dynamic situations. Pietersen walked back out to be dismissed without increasing his score. By his own admission, he played Zaheer “atrociously” in the first innings.

Yet, when the moment needed seizing — with England 132 for five in the second innings, ahead by 229 — Pietersen responded decisively. He has a certain natural advantage for intimidation: at 6ft 4in, not only does he cut an imposing figure, but he has access to positions most great batsmen, who have traditionally been much shorter, haven’t.

His reach and height allow him to manipulate both line and length. The ball on off-stump can be whipped to leg, but equally a ball short of length can be hit on the up. Just the knowledge that Pietersen can do this plays tricks on bowlers. Only the very best can still their minds.

“Pietersen’s hundred was the difference between the sides,” said Indian captain Rahul Dravid. “Our bowlers bowled beautifully and managed to dismiss every other top English batsman but him.”

R. P. Singh, who bowled with spirit and skill to take five for 59 — India’s only addition to the Lord’s honours board — but struggled against Pietersen, said: “He has great power and can hit to most parts of the ground. He is very difficult to dismiss.”

What did he try against Pietersen? “It’s not easy but changing length and pace was what I tried to do. But, he’s a great batsman,” R. P. Singh said.

Pietersen’s celebrations on reaching his hundred had about it the contrivance he has been suspected of. He arranged to run towards his fiancé and brother, spurning Matt Prior’s call for the second run as Sreesanth somehow managed to push the ball over the boundary. Some suspected that it was a reaction to the criticism.

Pietersen denied the second. “Everyone is entitled to their opinions. What you guys should know is that every single time I turn up for a training session, every single time I turn up for an international, I’ll never ever shy away from anything,” he said. “I’m committed to everything I do for this country, everything I do for this team — to win a Test match, to win a one-day game, and my preparation is everything to me. It is instrumental to the way I perform, and it goes without saying that I’m as happy as I can be. My celebrations were because of everything that went into this Test match as well.”

Pietersen’s reply to whether he considered himself an entertainer was as instructive: “I play to entertain, I play to enjoy myself, I play to express myself. But the most important thing is setting myself and the team up to win the Test match. I do like to have fun, but this was one of those innings where I definitely put the team first. I’d rate it as my best. These were some of the toughest conditions I’ve had to bat in.”

There were many performances that caught the eye in the first Test: Andrew Strauss’s 96 for sheer bloody-mindedness, James Anderson’s five-for for rare skill, R. P. Singh’s five-for for over-achievement; half-centuries from Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Karthik and M. S. Dhoni that had a significance beyond the Test. But, Pietersen’s aced them all.

Pity, the rain trumped his. The Scores First Test, Lord’s, 19-23 July, 2007. Match drawn.

England — 1st innings: A. Strauss c Dravid b Kumble 96; A. Cook lbw b Ganguly 36; M. Vaughan c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 79; K. Pietersen c Dhoni b Zaheer 37; P. Collingwood lbw b Kumble 0; R. Sidebottom b R. P. Singh 1; I. Bell b Zahe er 20; M. Prior lbw b Sreesanth 1; C. Tremlett lbw b Sreesanth 0; M. Panesar lbw b Sreesanth 0; J. Anderson (not out) 0; Extras (b-9, lb-10, w-7, nb-2) 28. Total: 298.

Fall of wkts: 1-76, 2-218, 3-252, 4-255, 5-272, 6-286, 7-287, 8-287, 9-297.

India bowling: Zaheer 18.2-4-62-2; Sreesanth 22-8-67-3; R. P. Singh 17-6-58-2; Ganguly 9-3-24-1; Kumble 23-2-60-2; Tendulkar 2-0-8-0.

India — 1st innings: D. Karthik lbw b Sidebottom 5; W. Jaffer c & b Tremlett 58; R. Dravid c Prior b Anderson 2; S. Tendulkar lbw b Anderson 37; S. Ganguly b Anderson 34; R. P. Singh c Anderson b Sidebottom 17; V. V. S. Laxma n c Prior b Sidebottom 15; M. Dhoni c Bell b Anderson 0; A. Kumble lbw b Sidebottom 11; Zaheer Khan c Strauss b Anderson 7; S. Sreesanth (not out) 0; Extras (b-4, lb-7, nb-4) 15. Total: 201.

Fall of wkts: 1-18, 2-27, 3-106, 4-134, 5-155, 6-173, 7-175, 8-192, 9-197.

England bowling: Sidebottom 22-5-65-4; Anderson 24.2-8-42-5; Tremlett 20-8-52-1; Collingwood 3-1-9-0; Panesar 8-3-22-0.

England — 2nd innings: A. Strauss c Tendulkar b Zaheer 18; A. Cook lbw b Zaheer 17; M. Vaughan b R. P. Singh 30; K. Pietersen b R. P. Singh 134; P. Collingwood c Laxman b R. P. Singh 4; I. Bell b R. P. Singh 9; M. Prior c Dhoni b Zaheer 42; C. Tremlett b Zaheer 0; R. Sidebottom c Dravid b Kumble 9; M. Panesar lbw b R. P. Singh 3; J. Anderson (not out) 4; Extras (b-9, lb-1, w-2) 12. Total: 282.

Fall of wkts: 1-40, 2-43, 3-102, 4-114, 5-132, 6-251, 7-251, 8-266, 9-275.

India bowling: Zaheer 28-6-79-4; Sreesanth 16-3-62-0; R. P. Singh 16.3-3-59-5; Kumble 17-3-70-1; Tendulkar 1-0-2-0.

India — 2nd innings: W. Jaffer c Pietersen b Anderson 8; D. Karthik c Collingwood b Anderson 60; R. Dravid lbw b Tremlett 9; S. Tendulkar lbw b Panesar 16; S. Ganguly lbw b Sidebottom 40; V. V. S. Laxman b Tremlett 39; M. Dhoni ( not out) 76; A. Kumble lbw b Sidebottom 3; Zaheer Khan c Prior b Tremlett 0; R. P. Singh b Panesar 2; S. Sreesanth (not out) 4; Extras (b-13, lb-5, w-6, nb-1) 25. Total (for nine wkts): 282.

Fall of wkts: 1-38, 2-55, 3-84, 4-143, 5-145, 6-231, 7-247, 8-254, 9-263.

England bowling: Sidebottom 19-4-42-2; Anderson 25-4-83-2; Tremlett 21-5-52-3; Panesar 26-7-63-2; Collingwood 1-0-6-0; Vaughan 4-0-18-0.