As Ashes fever raged yesterday Kevin Pietersen dashed in with a sedative. With only a day to go before the action begins, England's most thrilling batsman, on whom so much of their ambition depends, said it was only another game of cricket.
He also suggested that he was no more than bit-part player in the proceedings and expected nothing of himself in the next few weeks. Until Pietersen spoke many observers had wondered if the World Health Organisation was considering according pandemic status to the series between England and Australia which begins in Cardiff tomorrow.
"There is a tension in the rivalry between the two countries," said the South African-born Pietersen, who has already scored two hundreds against Australia, the first of which, at The Oval in 2005, was career-defining. "As a cricketer you obviously know what's going on and you understand the rivalry. But to try to make it out as something that's bigger than it is, you can hurt yourself and get yourself into a bit of a tizz, you can add too much pressure to yourself.
"You can definitely turn it into something it's not. At the end of the day it's a game of cricket between two teams who want to win – the same as if we play South Africa or India. The simpler you try to keep each game, each session, each ball, the more equipped you are."
Barely had his audience in the indoor cricket school at the Swalec Stadium taken this in than Pietersen took a wet sponge to his own role. To the outsider, if Pietersen fires at No 4, the home side have a chance of reclaiming the Ashes at the first time of the asking, if not they may as well all whistle "Dixie".
"I think you guys make the weight of expectation a lot greater than it actually is," he told his audience of reporters, cameramen, hangers-on and the Australians who were practising on the other side of the drapes. "In the dressing room I'm looking forward to it as much as anyone else. There's no great expectation on me in the England dressing room. I know and we all know that if you look at the stats from the last 12 months, we've all got runs, so I don't think that it's as big an issue as everyone says. I have confidence that the guys in the dressing room will perform. If you get me out cheaply or if I have a bad series, England can still win."
Ho hum. All of that had an element of truth, of course, but since the start of the last English season only the reborn Andrew Strauss has made more runs than Pietersen (84 more in three more innings) at a slightly higher average.
If Pietersen was being uncharacteristically cautious it is hard to think that he was not merely disguising the symptoms. It has been a tumultuous few months for him and since he lost the England captaincy in January he has been at pains to be one of the boys again.
By and large, he has succeeded but he has been around long enough to know that whatever he says is seized upon. It is part of what makes him so compelling a player.
Naturally, he could hardly avoid offering just a hint of the genuine expectation he feels against a side that has been transformed beyond measure by the loss of a host of iconic players.
"I wouldn't say I'm confident because of that, but certainly a team that loses Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn are not going to be as strong because those guys are as close to legends of the game as you can possibly get," he said. "Some of them are legends."
The fact that he listed them, more or less in order of iconic status, seemed to reinforce his point. But this was not a day for making tall claims, this was a day for being measured.
Pietersen warmed to his theme: "Yes, the Australian team is going to be weakened, but the Australian way is to come out and be fierce and competitive and be dominant in what they do, be forceful in their approach and throw a lot of punches early in the series. It doesn't matter who they put out, it's going to be tough for us to go out there and do the business.
"We can't talk about who they've got and who they haven't got, because when those guys go out and put on the baggy green cap, which is so historic to them, they're a fierce side. Three months ago they beat South Africa in South Africa. This team's a good team."
It was against Australia on a balmy late summer day in September 2005 that Pietersen created his legend. His blazing 158 at The Oval ensured that England regained the Ashes and as a result he will always be burdened with expectation. Nobody will let him escape it but yesterday he was not inclined to address properly the proposition whether he is a better batsman now than he was in 2005 (he is). "We'll find out after this series," he said. "I might be worse. I don't expect anything from myself. What I expect is to prepare right, that when I turn up on the morning of a Test match I've done everything I can possibly do to be fit. Mental preparation, physical preparation, hitting enough balls, catching enough balls, and that's where I leave it."
Just as he was about to leave, Pietersen looked forward to tomorrow's first session, all important in the context of match and series. "I expect it to be aggressive because Australia come really hard at the start of a series," he said. "In the last two series I've played they've come very hard – the guy who came hard at us was McGrath. He's not there any more, so they'll have to rely on someone else to come hard at us.
"It'll be a big, big series. They've got some very good performers in their side. We expect it to be tough, but we're also going to come out hard and come out fighting, because we're not scared." That was more like it.
On fire in the Ashes: Pietersen's record
*Kevin Pietersen made his Test debut in the first Test at Lord's in 2005, becoming the 626th player to represent England.
*Pietersen was the highest scorer in the 2005 Ashes, hitting an imperious 473 runs from just 663 balls, for a batting average of 52.55.
*His highest score in an Ashes Test is 158, achieved in the crucial fifth Test at The Oval in 2005 and also in the second Test in 2006-07. The former was reached from just 187 balls, including 15 fours and seven sixes (a record for an English player in an Ashes innings). Pietersen received the man of the match award.
*In the 2006-07 series, despite England suffering a 5-0 whitewash, Pietersen hit 490 runs, the second highest total of the series.Reuse content