James Lawton: Pietersen will need bravado of old to storm Wanderers
If Cape Town was Ian Bell's point of salvation, this could be his Rubicon
Thursday 14 January 2010
Three tremendous Test matches so far, no doubt, but here in the old South African fortress of The Wanderers ground something a little different.
It is the exquisite pressure which comes when you are playing for the kind of stakes which changes the way the world looks at you – and maybe how you look at yourself.
The challenge sits on the shoulders of the players who need to show that their contribution to what could prove one of the greatest years English cricket has ever known has been of more than passing significance.
Absurdly, when you consider the gifts he carries to the wicket, at the head of the list is surely the once fabled Kevin Pietersen.
For the watching former captain Michael Vaughan the absurdity will seem extreme indeed when he remembers the astonishing confidence the young Pietersen brought to this ground a few years ago when he returned to a hostile home country in a one-day series. The crowd were screaming for his head as much as his wicket, but Pietersen seemed to grow a little with each wave of barracking.
Here, thought his partner Vaughan, was both a talent and a self-belief for the ages. It is a view hard to endorse in this current series, the one that Pietersen vowed would see him win back the ground lost in his injury-ravaged Ashes series. The crowds here are rather more tolerant now. But is this out of new-found forgiveness or the belief that a threat has passed?
The evidence of this series tilts us towards the latter view. Yet it is still impossible to believe that the kind of strokeplay Pietersen displayed before his manic run-out in the first Test at Centurion is in danger of still more erosion. Certainly if he is to re-establish some of his old aura there could be no better timing. The circumstances call for a serious statement of intent – and solid evidence that the disillusionment of his captaincy experience and his new fascination with the joys of family life have not removed that edge which separates the great players from the merely talented.
Pietersen had a hunted look when he left the field in Cape Town after his second cheap dismissal – sufficiently so to suggest that the last week may have brought a new level of self-examination. The hope is fond because there is nothing more saddening in sport than a failure truly to exploit the highest levels of ability.
The hunch here is that Pietersen may have served his time in purgatory, in which case the South Africans may soon enough be asking some piercingly uncomfortable questions of their own.
Ian Bell has performed a formidable recovery act these last few weeks and his challenge is to move his career on to a new level of assurance. The batting skills have always been evident but then for so long so too was the tendency towards mere hope and speculation.
If Durban and Cape Town were his points of salvation, The Wanderers could well be his Rubicon. Another century would do very nicely.
In many minds, not least perhaps his own, Stuart Broad has already arrived and certainly there are aspects of his cricket which make this easy enough to understand.
However, the flaws are too often as obvious as the strengths. South Africa's sub-official suggestion that he cheated in Cape Town no doubt lacked overwhelming evidence, but even casual observation did not exactly banish the suspicion that he still has some growing up to do. Of course he has the youth for it – and surely more than enough incentive in some beautiful talent.
What it all means here this morning is that England, under the increasingly impressive leadership of Andrew Strauss, may just be in danger of becoming a great team.
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