Fast-burning flame prepares for explosive contest

As a boy he had to fight his way through the ranks at Maritzburg College, an institution regarded as rigorous even by South African standards - but a school that expected to win, and usually did. From the outset he knew cricket only as a game that pits man against man. It'll take more than a few Australians to put him off. England has not chosen a batsman so much as a competitor.

Nor has ambition been lacking. Every sign of meekness was eliminated as the frail child became the robust, headstrong youth. After school he started playing practice matches for Kwa-Zulu and batted and bowled well enough to deserve further opportunities. Much to his fury, his progress was interrupted by forces beyond his control. Instructed to field racially balanced teams, the local selectors told Pietersen his time had not yet come.

Pietersen promptly flew to Johannesburg to meet Dr Ali Bacher, a man responsible for the cricketing destructions of the 1980s. Informed that sides chosen on merit were no longer feasible, the youngster decided to pack his bags. He wanted to stand or fall by cricket alone. He was prepared to wait four years in his adopted country and then to take his chances. Transformation is fine until the sacrifice becomes personal.

Clive Rice brought him to Nottinghamshire and then came further frustration as the county failed to show the drive for success desired by its combative signing. Pietersen is not by nature inclined to make the best of a bad lot. Instead, he raged like a caged lion. His life has been all ducks and centuries, and will continue in that vein because he cannot otherwise survive. For some men, to stop is to perish.

By his actions he had revealed himself as a young man prepared to live by his own lights. Much the same wilfulness can be detected in his batting. He may go forward, he may go back, he will seldom be caught in between. He belongs to the contemporary, post-welfare school of batting that seeks early domination and depends upon power to achieve it.

Nor does Pietersen allow himself to be compromised by doubt. Significantly, he is comfortable in the company of champions past and present. Bonds have been formed with Shane Warne and Ian Botham, transgressors, showmen and competitors. Pietersen's flame burns as hot as theirs. None of them ever thinks scared. Repeatedly, they stormed the barricades. It was the outlook Pietersen respected, and wanted in his game. Accordingly he entered their world, and drew them into his.

Now comes the challenge that Pietersen has sought all his life, the chance to pit himself against the best. Of course, he is not as complete a player as Graham Thorpe with his left-handedness and tucks off his pads. He is, though, more optimistic and less used to defeat. None of the Englishmen in this series has ever won an Ashes series, none of the Australians has tasted defeat. At least Pietersen has no bad memories.

Pietersen's temperament will survive the examination. His technique is another matter. The Australians will be eager to subdue the upstart. Moreover they are superb at exposing and exploiting weaknesses. Can he play off the back foot? Can he put pressure back on the bowlers? It's going to be an interesting and explosive confrontation.

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