Pietersen now looks at a new horizon
Spectacular century could start a thrilling journey - only one man knows where it might end
Sunday 28 May 2006
In his newspaper column last week, Kevin Pietersen announced that he wanted to be the No 1 batsman in the world. Well, he would, wouldn't he? In his innings at Edgbaston on Friday it was possible to believe that anything was possible. Anything he wanted to be. The declaration had turned from something more than a strident headline. Much more.
Over the course of the 157 balls he received in almost four hours Pietersen lent it substance. Over the course of the next three years he could make it reality. His 142, at a a strike rate of 90.44 per cent, combined dead straight - if occasionally improvised - defence with sequences of outrageous attacking shots.
It is customary to produce pie charts of players' centuries to show where they hit the ball. Pietersen's shows that in front of square he scored 52 runs on the leg side and 45 on the off.
But they cannot begin to embrace the areas from where he struck the ball: down the pitch, using his enormous reach; from 18 inches outside off, clumping the ball by employing what is almost a tennis player's top-spin action with his bottom hand; making room on the back foot to smash through the covers. It was breathtaking.
By the end - which came just after his final, extraordinary scoring shot, a reverse-swept six off Muttiah Muralitharan - things had changed.
Pietersen's life was altered forever by his innings at The Oval against Australia last summer. But in Birmingham there was another significant shift. The spectators took him to their hearts as they had not quite done before. This process might have started last summer and continued at Lord's a fortnight ago, but it was completed here. At the end, they stood as one. He sensed the worship and milked it. KP likes being famous.
Afterwards he displayed a kind of attack-defence combo, which ranged between assertiveness and self-deprecation. For instance, he tried to deny that he had been quite so bold as to claim he wanted to be No 1. But then he said there was nothing wrong with wanting to be the best. Nor is there.
He is also a deeply thoughtful cricketer. The destructive way he plays had suggested that there would be regular failures, but he has taken this observation and added a vigilance to his game that was missing. He uses his height and long arms, he knows when to hit but also when not to. Not that he leaves much. In successive summers now he has carted to most corners the best two spin bowlers in the world, and in doing so he has used different techniques against both Shane Warne and Murali.
There is a trigger in Pietersen's personality, perhaps born of his desperate awareness that he must not only fit in to the English side (which he achieved instantly) but also that he must be seen to be fitting in. Lest he appeared arrogant, he said he was pretty inept at reading Murali. "I use my reach to get there, which might look as if I know what's going on, but I can assure you I'm pretty clueless," he said. So clueless that he scored 56 runs in the 58 balls he faced from Murali, and this despite the fact that for about half of them the great bowler had him pinned down.
Pietersen said the reverse-swept six - something that only Jonty Rhodes in a one-day international had executed against Murali before - was premeditated (and therefore, by implication, lucky) because they had cut off all his other scoring areas. Maybe, maybe not, but it still displayed a calculating batsman.
Murali said it was the best innings he had seen, assessing that as an aggressor Pietersen was right up there with Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Inzamam-ul-Haq, and he was talking about when they were in their pomp.
The former England captain Mike Gatting was appropriately moved. He said: "He has strength, power and vision. He plays shots that others could not think about. He can obviously be very, very good indeed." There was just one caveat. "This was a soft attack," said Gatting. "They had no pace and he murdered them."
This was one note of caution, and there is another. In his 13th match Pietersen has now scored 1,190 Test runs. In his 10th match Andrew Strauss reached 1,000 Test runs. He is currently going through a less spectacular patch in which Test cricket is telling him how hard it is. Do not, however, underestimate Pietersen's power and belief.
He took on Murali while the bowler was taking 6 for 30 against the rest of England, and his score was 112 more than the next individual best in the match. Of those to have scored 1,000 runs in Tests, Pietersen now has the fifth-best scoring rate, 71 runs per 100 balls. This week he should officially enter the top 10 in the world batting rankings. The peak beckons.
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