James Lawton: Pietersen follows in Botham's shoes
Tuesday 13 September 2005
There is a compelling argument to say what happened here over the last few days, and indeed the entire Ashes series, has simply been beyond compare.
But when a game reaches the height it has achieved all summer, history inevitably presents us with a point of reference, and the obvious one as Pietersen settled the last of the doubts, was the heroically battered century by Botham at Headingley in 1981.
Botham stopped the Aussies of Dennis Lillee, and there was an astonishing symmetry in the fact that such similar young men found a way to conquer the game's master race at an ultimately pivotal point in a collision between the oldest foes. Both have provoked questions about their understanding of the true nature of the game. Both have been seen as the most overtly ambitious of young adventurers in a game which was always supposed to be about a sense of team and tradition. Both might still struggle to earn a benevolent look in the Lord's Long Room. But, 24 years apart, both have made the same point. It is that, ultimately, talent means little if it is not accompanied by an abiding belief in your ability to take hold of a cricket match by its heart and its throat.
When Botham pulled his team up so sensationally, the Aussies sneered that he was the author of a "slog."
"They were quite right," said Botham. "It was a slog - a glorious slog." Ditto, Pietersen's astonishing break-out here yesterday just when the Australians, led again by the most durable and brilliant veterans cricket has ever known, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, had conjured the shocking resistance to the rise of England.
Pietersen was twice dropped when the match still had the properties of an emotional powder keg. Adam Gilchrist fumbled a chance off Warne which could not be quite retrieved by the normally hawk-like Matthew Hayden. Then, of all people, Warne dropped him off McGrath. Pietersen's innings was still in its infancy, as it was when Brett Lee launched an assault, at speeds of up to 94mph, which was quite astonishing when you considered it came from an essentially amiable man.
Lee, though overshadowed by McGrath, has bowled superbly at times this summer, and he has laughed in both glory and pain. Now he had the smile of an assassin as he bowled head and throat balls at the man who represented the last serious English threat to an unforgettable Australian recovery. Pietersen not only survived, he assumed the status of a bludgeoning giant. Some say he is not a young cricket star fashioned in the heavens. His self-interest is palpable, his love of the glory comes without apology. With his dyed hair and his love of bling, he is the antithesis of his team-mate and massive folk hero Freddie Flintoff. But, of course, he shares something quite valuable in a burgeoning sports star. He has talent that you could throw on a bonfire without burning it all away.
His seven sixes smashed the Ashes record, and guess who was supplanted? Yes, Botham, the supreme extrovert whose like some argued would never again appear in an England team. Now England have two men of such explosive performance, Pietersen the herculean egoist, Flintoff the great heart.
They also have in Michael Vaughan a forceful captain of high intelligence who - now that he is so utterly secure in his job - may again be a batsman of classic technique and outstanding performance. They have a pace bowling attack which can bring a surge of concern in any corner of the game.
We saw here again the quality of these deposed champions. We saw Hayden and Justin Langer scoring centuries from the tightest of corners. We saw Warne, who took 12 wickets in his last Test on English soil, and McGrath fighting with the intensity that made them champions.
Yet nothing they did could stop the English tide, one that, long after the issue was closed, was still being expressed by Steve Harmison in a burst of bouncers.
The point of supremacy had been made dramatically enough, and most crushingly by Pietersen. That he belongs to a new age, and another dimension, was maybe underlined by another remnant of history. Sixty seven years earlier, Sir Len Hutton had scored a world record 364 on this ground. He batted for more than than two days and scored 35 fours. He didn't score a six. He belonged to another age, another world.
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