James Lawton: Time for Kevin Pietersen to give his old greatness an airing at new Old Trafford
KP's ability to draw us to the edge of our seats should be as tangible as ever
Even while Old Trafford unfurls itself in new splendour and England advance confidently on an historic Test victory and step towards the 5-0 Ashes whitewash, we know well enough where the greatest drama will occur this morning. Once again it will be going on in the head of Kevin Pietersen.
Preparations for his fitness test, which he is expected to pass with a statuary roll of drums, naturally challenged, if they did not surpass, the excitement over native son James Anderson's potential to re-anoint the magnificent old ground as a proper stage for the great cricketers.
In his ability to wallow in the wonder of his own existence at the highest level of sport he may have only one serious rival in the erstwhile US Masters champion golfer Bubba Watson, of whom it was said after one spectacular show of emotion, "He's the kind of guy who cries when someone cooks his eggs right".
What they also have in common, of course, is a supreme ability to prove from time to time they are well worth the trouble. Bubba did it with that unforgettable shot from the Augusta pines to win the 2012 title and Pietersen has been doing it on and off since his spectacular and decisive intervention in the 2005 Ashes.
If he never scored another Test century, which would be his 23rd, if he never emerged competitively coherent from another self-imposed melodrama, he would still have to be included in any list of the great English batsmen. However, at 33 he must have noticed that the shadows are beginning to appear. The great statements of his sometimes astonishing powers have not, certainly, been so regular since he was first besieged by serious criticism in the first Test of the 2009 Ashes series.
At a vital phase of that encounter in Cardiff which England so narrowly saved, Pietersen played a shot of the starkest irresponsibility as he top-edged a sweep to a ball outside off-stump from Nathan Hauritz. When injury followed at the Lord's Test his aura, for one reason or another, began to ebb. Tomorrow, however, he has the chance – and perhaps the need – to re-instate himself not only as one of the current game's major forces but also a figure of historical significance.
With all those Test centuries, and a batting average of 48.30, he will never be in danger of an obscure place in the annals of the game. With so much history in the moist air, however, he might well consider it an opportune moment to make a really powerful statement about why he remains, foibles and self-indulgences and all, such a compelling figure.
The last time he did it quite unimpeachably was at the Adelaide Oval slightly more than two-and-a-half years ago. He scored 227 runs of quite mesmerising quality. There is a picture of him which stays resolutely in the mind. It is of him stepping down the wicket to a delivery from one of Shane Warne's embattled heirs, Xavier Doherty, and hitting a six of outrageous authority. He made many more such shots and then, ironically enough when you remember the furore over the mayhem he brought to the England dressing room last summer, made an astonishing speech about the unshakeable value of team spirit. England had claimed the Ashes lead with an innings victory and Pietersen's speech on behalf of his captain Andrew Strauss and his team-mates seemed very much like the result of a man who had taken the most penetrating look at himself.
We have not exactly been inundated with such evidence in the intervening years and months but, still, Pietersen has the ability to draw us to the edge of our seats. No doubt it will be as tangible as ever if he walks to the crease, firing a nation's hope for the kind of performance which would re-announce the greatest of talents.
If he felt any need for inspiration he could have found more than enough in that performance of his in Adelaide. It had everything you could have wanted in the most superior batsman, touch, timing and an effortless understanding of his own powers.
There is also another precedent which came 32 years ago on the ground he treads in the third Test. Sir Ian Botham set it when, a few weeks after his extraordinary part in the Headingley Test which turned England towards one of the unlikeliest Ashes triumphs, he scored 118 off 102 balls for his eighth Test century. Botham hit six sixes and his principal victim was Dennis Lillee, who later said that it was a clearly superior innings to the one that created legend at Headingley.
He was not a bad witness to have, the greatest fast bowler of his generation, who had been bludgeoned into his praise by a series of outrageous Botham hooks for six. Botham said of his Headingley epic: "It was a slog, true, but it was a bloody brilliant one." At Old Trafford Botham produced something more. It was the absolute command of a batsman in charge of himself and everything around him. The steely observer Richie Benaud declared: "He hooked Lillee off his eyebrows as though he was crushing a fly."
Pietersen doesn't face Lillee and, as we were saying, he doesn't have to look too far beyond his own achievements to arrive at the kind of performance which would usher Old Trafford – and English cricket – into a day of appropriately heightened experience.
If Pietersen can weary us with his interior obsessions, if some of his attitudes still smack of adolescence, no one can question his right to be at the centre of the most important cricket action – or his potential to produce a performance that will always linger in the mind.
This is why this morning's fitness test, however elaborate or strung out, still has the power to compel. Pietersen may not be able to take us back to the prime of the magisterially beefy Botham, he may not have that wonderfully uncomplicated instinct to pulverise any opponent, but when he steps out with an uncluttered head we know there are few limits on what he can achieve.
The new Old Trafford is thus enhanced by the timeless appeal of a great player.
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