It was an innings of unambivalent, unarguable genius. He hadn’t played such a knock for, oh, some four whole Test innings.
In the three days following his frenetic, panicky efforts in Ahmedabad, Kevin Pietersen managed to overhaul his modus operandi against spin (as this most diligent and streetwise of batsmen has repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to do), then get himself in with quiet authority and a clear mind, before flourishing in a manner few can aspire to, let alone pull off. Indeed, he never looked like he was in anything but total control – either of his emotions or the threat from the Indian spinners. It perhaps helped him that Shane Warne counselled him to “back his technique”, but self-belief isn’t enough. You need method. Decision making.
Facing his apparent nemesis, Pragyan Ojha, purveyor of the left-arm spin that was deemed to be his Achilles heel and who had twice dismissed him in the first Test, he looked absolutely rock solid. From ball one. Firstly, he moved late into position (having picked up length quickly). Secondly, when defending on the front foot, he let the ball come to him and thus did not thrust his hands out or break his wrists, be that turning to leg or playing a ‘curtain rail’ to try and run the spinning ball out on the offside. Everything was synchronised, aligned.
Defending off the back foot – to begin with, at least – he shortened his backlift, a method that was not that of ‘looking to attack but if it’s not there, defending’ routinely advocated in the more macho cricketing lands, but committing absolutely to defence in circumstances where, initially, you need to play back as much as possible (because the ball was frequently jumping) and, as a result, introduce the danger of being undone if the ball skids through. Ask Sachin.
Against the offies, he employed this same technique – a shorter backlift in the early stages – but, crucially, was very light on his feet and opened up his shoulders as the ball spun and bounced, and occasionally spat, ensuring that he didn’t get closed off and into the sort of positions where you nick it on to the thigh pad and into short leg’s hands.
Once initially settled, he used his feet to pressurise the bowler’s length, but didn’t overhit. Finally, when truly established, he brought out the audacious, the extravagant, and the barely conceivable en route to his third truly special Test hundred of the year, following his efforts in Colombo and Leeds. After a chastening few months, the banished genius was smiling again – a subdued smile, perhaps, but also, dare it be said, a more authentic and unselfconscious smile.
Predictably, Twitter was quickly thick with flippant comments ridiculing the idea that Pietersen had needed to undergo the process of “reintegration” at all, thus implying that everyone should simply have got on with things, as though the breaking of trust in a group environment is not a matter of the gravest importance. It doesn’t matter if we have doubts about Old Archie’s trustworthiness on this job, because he’s the best darn safecracker in the business... Not all of these remarks were throwaway, either. Many were delivered by professional writers, for whom the concept of teamwork scarcely impinges on the texture of their work and for whom it is therefore easy to be dismissive of such notions as seeking a background ambience of collective harmony to their endeavours.
With no little disingenuousness, it has thus been averred that the problem – the issue – was nonexistent, imagined, unmanly, and that, quite apart from scoffing at the notion that Pietersen’s presence in the dressing room was toxic and potentially ruinous to morale (in such a way that would affect performance rather than the barroom banter), the process of reintegration has been of no consequence whatsoever. Perhaps it hasn’t as far as KP’s batting is concerned; but it it would be difficult to believe that it hasn’t affected – in a positive way – Alastair Cook. At the very least, he wouldn’t have to endure that selfsame press pack continually asking him about KP’s absence in the event of sub-par team performances.
But surely anyone who has lived for an extended period of time in the same group – i.e. anyone who is part of a nuclear family – must acknowledge that life is generally easier when there are no bad atmospheres, no repressed animosity, no bad blood. So, a time-honoured process of contrition and forgiveness was set in motion. No dramas.
The team’s celebration of Pietersen’s century seemed genuinely warm (as opposed to at Headingley, when, playing across the faces of the ‘politburo’, there were a few stitched-on smirks for a traitor headed for the pogroms) and his own celebration was in keeping with the relaxed tenor of his innings. Maybe he had eschewed the literal Red Bull for the metaphorical Valium, swapped stimulant for sedative; there was certainly a serenity, an equanimity, in his eyes between balls, whether those be defended under duress or cuffed imperiously to the boundary.
In some ways, that relaxed demeanour might be precisely because his wings had been clipped (his Red Bull wings, you might say). Gone was the air of studied mateyness, the cloying awareness of brand KP, the suspicion that all was done to the end of positioning himself for IPL riches.
He has remembered the importance of his statistical legacy and a place in the game’s pantheon. And this is not to denigrate that outlook at all; it is merely to point out that he needed the threat of its removal to be reminded of the stakes, and his ultimate dependence on others to realize hs personal ambitions. He has truly learned the value – in a non-monetary sense – of Test cricket (for
England) to him. And we know this not because he has said so in
some PR platitude (which he has), but because he has not dug in his heels (as
would have an overly defensive and intransigent ego) and because he has bent over
backwards to salvage his Test career. This is genuine humility, it would appear.
And perhaps Andy Flower needs to be congratulated, for the outcome is surely vindication of his handling of the affair, his apparent willingness – all brinkmanship aside – both to do without his best player, push come to shove, and to welcome him back once he was satisfied that the ethos of mutual respect would not be fatally compromised. Demanding a sincere apology isn’t so punitive now, is it?