Perhaps death and taxes have the edge but there was something inevitable about England’s fourth century in the Ashes series yesterday. It was scored by Kevin Pietersen and went some way, though no by no means all, to ensuring that the great prize of the terracotta urn will be coming home for the third successive time.
Pietersen had been on the periphery of affairs in the summer so far, injured at the start and short of runs since his return. This is not where he likes to be and his determination to nudge his way from the edge of the stage was demonstrated by the intensive treatment he had for a calf strain in the week before the Third Investec Test.
It all went to suggest that a key intervention was nigh and yesterday it duly arrived when England needed it most. He was not always at his most fluent in compiling his 23 Test hundred but there were patches of brilliance and chutzpah of which only he is capable.
Unfortunately for England Pietersen did not see out the third day and when he was dismissed, naturally with an element of controversy which has surrounded many departures from the crease in this series, it immediately enhanced Australia’s prospects of winning the match and staying in the hunt.
England finished proceedings on 294 for 7, still 34 short of avoiding the follow-on. Australia’s best hope of winning would seem to be enforcing it. The tourists have been comfortably the better side in this Test and have laid to rest the absurd suggestion that England might run out 10-0 winners in the two series that the countries are playing against each other this year. With rain forecast in the North West over the next two days it is extremely doubtful that they can do enough to force the victory that they need to sustain the prospect of regaining the Ashes.
Already 2-0 down in the series, they were left needing to win the remaining three Tests. A draw here – which is the best England can hope for – would end that aspiration but they will have serious intentions now of drawing the series. There was purposeful attitude in their play yesterday, at times a swagger, which England could not quite match.
The rate of scoring, even with Pietersen in occupation, never reached three runs an over. Only briefly in the early afternoon did England up the ante. Otherwise it was diligent stuff, all application and desperation.
Pietersen had the most apprehensive of starts in the morning, entering the arena when Jonathan Trott, who never looked at home, was caught low at second slip. The cat on the hot tin roof looked a model of stillness compared to Pietersen’s fraught movements around the crease and his panic-ridden choice of stroke betrayed his anxiety.
Suddenly he settled when he pulled a couple of short balls in succession for four. It seemed to persuade him that everything was all right again, that he could indeed still hit a cricket ball harder and more disdainfully than any man alive.
He did not provide the most consummate batting of the day, however. That came from Ian Bell, in on the stroke of lunch when Alastair Cook was acrobatically caught down the leg side by Brad Haddin.
Where Pietersen read the coaching manual and amended it to his own ends, Bell digested it and set out to become a perfect exponent of the information therein. He was sublime in his timing and execution. The cover drive, elbow high, knee low was impeccable, the late cut delightful. Pietersen might have looked at this and envied the orthodoxy.
In the afternoon session the pair repelled Australia. They hit the off spinner Nathan Lyon out of the attack and as the ball grew older worked it easily around. Pietersen reached his fifty with consecutive sixes and had a stroke of fortune when he reached 62.
An lbw appeal by Shane Watson was turned down as the batsman advanced down the wicket. Australia, laughingly, decided not to review the decision but were not laughing any more when replays showed the ball would have hit leg stump full on.
England scored 92 without losing a wicket in the afternoon session and it was astonishing shortly after when Bell was beaten by Ryan Harris’s skiddy pace and had his off stump trimmed. It was his only error since he first came in and was beaten outside the off stump.
The manner in which he went to three figures, for the fourth time against Australia and the first at home since his unforgettable 158 at The Oval in 2005, was typical. He took one look at a short wide ball from Starc and upper cut it dismissively for four over gully.
It had been a curious innings in some ways, masterful, dominant, watchful. It was ended when he played down the wrong line to Starc who looked a much more potent bowler operating from the Pavilion End.
Pietersen reviewed the decision more in hope than expectation and walked when the necessary components of the regulations appeared to have been met. Later scrutiny, however, suggested his bat may have made contact with the ball on its way to the pad.
The decision review system and the human error which accompanies it have been thrown into the spotlight during this series. Four umpires are at present expected to stand throughout the two series because they are the only four on the ICC elite list not to come from either Australia or England.
It is unlikely that the neutral umpire regulation will be relaxed because of the effect it could have on other series but it may be that someone will suggest recruiting an umpire from the international panel who is not on the elite list. The umpires in this series have looked under strain and the challenges facing them will only increase in the months ahead.
England were resolutely subdued in the closing stages. Six of the last seven overs were maidens. It was impossible to tell that they were leading in the series. That is a good thing for the Ashes.
KP: 'I didn't want to miss the Ashes'
Kevin Pietersen has revealed that he delayed a knee operation that would have ruled him out of both Ashes series this year in order to try to help England beat Australia this summer, writes Tom Collomosse.
A year on from his infamous press conference after the drawn Test against South Africa at Headingley, when the batsman said it was "tough being me" in the England dressing room, Pietersen's 23rd Test hundred gave England hope of clinching the draw that will ensure they retain the urn.
Pietersen missed three Tests against New Zealand because of the knee. He said: "I didn't have surgery because I didn't want to miss the Ashes," he said. "It was a big decision. If I'd had surgery, I would have been out for nine months.
"I like performing on the big stage. If you play for England or Australia, your career is defined by how you perform in Ashes cricket. Nobody likes injuries and I haven't enjoyed this year. Missing three months wasn't fun, but that's how much the Ashes means."
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