James Lawton: Pietersen had them by the throats... then let his grip slip

Various medical bulletins were being issued as Kevin Pietersen appeared to be building an innings to crush Australia at the dawn of this latest war of the Ashes. The problem, it was finally decided, was somewhere in his right calf, just above the Achilles tendon that recently required a cortisone injection.

Wrong. The difficulty was lurking not in his leg but his head. It came to the surface with a shot of dismaying folly at a time when Pietersen was finally unfurling some of those trademarked strokes which some time ago announced him as arguably the world's most gifted batsman.

England were 241 for 4 and the former captain was on 69, the nearest thing to a certainty for a century some gnarled old judges had ever seen. Then the mists came, as they tend to do quite frequently in the career of this superbly gifted cricketer.

He chased a ball from Australia's pale successor to Shane Warne, Nathan Hauritz so far outside his off stump some locals thought he was heading off to the Rhondda Valley. The ensuing shot looped in a high arc into the hands of Simon Katich, who happened to be fielding at short leg. Later Pietersen claimed that because the ball had, en route to Katich, hit his helmet he was absolved of all charges except being unlucky.

The unavoidable truth, however, was that rarely can such a bizarre shot have been played by a front-rank Test cricketer, and certainly one who had recently been entrusted with the captaincy of his adopted country. There was an additional irony in that while many of his admirers will say, "Well, that's the way KP plays, you enjoy the best, you have to live with the rest," Pietersen had earlier demonstrated quite superb discipline in guiding England through the crisis that came when England's front three, captain Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara found themselves back in the pavilion with just 90 runs on the board.

Much of his innings was utterly out of character. He hit just two fours in 20 overs as Australia's three-man pace attack of Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus and the unlucky Peter Siddle all extracted more than the expected life from a pitch that gave Strauss no hesitation in choosing to bat. But then, when the day's battle seemed to be firmly in English hands, Pietersen applied his version of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the spinning career of Hauritz.

It was not the act of the injured cricket statesman painted by some when he was so brusquely eased out of the England captaincy earlier this year. It was that of a man who at times looks as though he owns everything he surveys on a cricket field, a man of wondrous talent but not always profound vision.

Certainly the Australians could scarcely believe their good fortune. They were beginning to rue the passive middle session which saw Pietersen and Paul Collingwood re- build the English position against the scarcely challenging Hauritz and his vice-captain Michael Clarke, an inspired batsman on his day but perhaps someone who rather over-rates his ability to spin the ball.

Ricky Ponting's leadership will inevitably come under some fresh examination – why did he muzzle an under-rated seam attack which had come to make a passable impression of a pack of attack dogs when Johnson dismissed Strauss with a sharply rising bouncer and then joined with Siddle in undermining Bopara with deliveries which landed, respectively, on the batsman's head and throat?

There was still, however, a fine balance indeed at the end of an absorbing day. At 336 for 7, England still have the potential to push the score to near the 400 mark which was surely the minimum requirement of Strauss when he won the toss. Yet this for Ponting was still almost a deliverance, especially when you feed in the fact that first Matt Prior, then Freddy Flintoff played themselves into a position where they appeared to be seeing the ball so big and bright it might have been a sundew melon.

Flintoff, though, joined the Pietersen Disaster Club when he cut short an innings of 37 with one of the wildest shots of the turbulent day. Not perhaps a disaster in the terms of this first Test match, but certainly in what it said about some English attitudes at the start of such a long examination of nerve and talent.

Both Pietersen and Flintoff revealed, yet again, the scale of that talent but both failed to draw from it maximum returns. In both cases there was the strong sense that the Australians had been delivered from their worst fears – and for no better reason than a failure of concentration by their opponents.

Australia will no doubt resolve to build on their great escapes when the action resumes this morning. They were also relieved when Prior, who continues to make the case that being a mediocre wicketkeeper is no bar to a Test place if you score enough runs, lost his wicket after a 56 which contained several shots of the most impressive class, and they must believe they can remove the likes of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann the right side of 400 runs.

It means that we could hardly have a finer balance at the start of a series which most believe will inevitably become a matter of attrition. Yesterday there was quite a bit of that, but also something quite different.

Most seriously for England it was that their two most talented and celebrated players lost wickets in a way which cannot fill the land with overwhelming optimism.

First Pietersen, then Flintoff had the Aussies on their knees, and on both occasions they relaxed the hold on their throats. Against any opposition this can be dangerous. On the first day of an Ashes series it is something close to madness. If you have the Australians down, you keep them down. You do it as clinically as you can.

Pietersen forgot this, along with his generally most superior batting technique, when he played his outrageous shot. Regret could come swiftly enough, perhaps as early as this afternoon, if the Australians get a few runs – and play true to form rather than some precarious whim.

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