By SB Tang
Going into the second Test against South Africa at Headingley, England were already 1-0 down in a three Test series that they had to, at minimum, draw in order to retain their world number one Test ranking.
By the afternoon of the third day at Headingley, England had slumped to 4 for 173 in their first innings — still 246 runs in arrears of South Africa’s imposing first innings total of 419 — and, with Test debutant James Taylor batting at number six, only an optimist of Dawson Leery proportions could have predicted that, in the space of 48 hours, England would begin their second innings with a real chance of winning the Test match. That they did so was due largely to the efforts of Kevin Peter Pietersen.
Coming in at 2 for 85, KP started cautiously at first — his first 50 runs took 90 balls. But, after tea on the third day, with his partner Taylor settled and comfortable at the crease, KP launched an audacious counter-attack against the world’s most fearsome pace battery. KP’s next 50 runs came off 52 balls and he raised his century — the 21st in his 88 Test career — off 142 balls.
However, bare statistics cannot do justice to such an innings: a thing of brutal, wondrous beauty. KP did not merely take on and beat the world’s fastest and best bowler in Dale Steyn, he bullied Steyn as if he was nothing more than an impertinent schoolboy who’d bluffed his way into an England net session.
KP picked up an 85.1 mph Steyn delivery, pitching just short of a good length outside off, and violently hurled it — all bottom-hand — like a rag doll through the region between mid-wicket and mid-on for four. The combined knowledge of the Sky and BBC commentary boxes could not fathom a proper name for the shot. Fitting perhaps — an unnamed shot played through an unnamed region by a maverick genius who would soon be without a country in Test cricket. The shot resembled nothing I’d ever seen in real life. The only thing my mind could compare it with was a scene from Joss Whedon’s The Avengers of the Incredible Hulk casually flinging cars and hostile aliens around the streets of Manhattan.
Two balls later, KP drove an 83 mph length ball straight back over Steyn’s head for six. The look on Steyn’s face was a mixture of disbelief and helplessness. Such a shot — even with modern bat technology — would seem to defy the laws of physics.
When KP departed for 149 the following morning, England were 6 for 351 and well-set to post a competitive total. They were eventually bowled out for 425 later that morning, with a first innings lead of 6 runs.
South Africa batted aggressively in their second innings, KP took a career best 3/52 with his part-time off-spin and Stuart Broad got on one of his trade mark hot streaks with the ball, taking 5/33 in a spell which lasted just shy of seven overs. All of which meant that South Africa declared at 9 for 258 after tea on the final day and England were presented with a gettable target of 253 in 39 overs for victory.
As it turned out, England captain Andrew Strauss hedged the opportunity to win the second Test and the match ended in a draw as England bolted their shop door shut with nearly 20 overs to go in their run chase.
Six days later, KP was dropped from the England side for failing to deny allegations that he sent private text messages to members of the South African side which contained “derogatory” remarks about Strauss and England Team Director Andy Flower.
KP may never play Test cricket again.
Regardless of whether one believes that KP or the ECB are in the wrong, there’s surely one thing which we can all agree on — the identity of the entirely innocent victims of this dispute: the England fans.
The same fans who, in the midst of a severe recession, save up so that they can travel abroad to support their team in numbers unmatched by any other Test-playing nation. The fans who have waited decades for a decent cricket team who can consistently win Ashes series and global ICC tournaments. The fans whose hopes of seeing their side defend their world T20 crown and retain the Ashes have been severely damaged by KP’s omission.
Heck, I’m Australian and even I feel sorry for the England fans. They deserve better.
Like many a maverick genius, KP divides opinion.
In the aftermath of his dumping, some have argued that England do not need KP, citing the 2009 Ashes — which England won 2-1, despite KP being sidelined for the last three Tests with an Achilles injury — as evidence in support of their argument. But this argument blithely ignores the broader context. In the past seven years, the England cricket team has accomplished five things unimaginable just a decade ago: the 2005 Ashes series win, the 2009 Ashes series win, the 2010 World T20 championship, the 2010–11 Ashes series win and the world number one Test ranking. KP has played an instrumental role in every one of those five team accomplishments except for the 2009 Ashes.
Even during the 2009 Ashes, he was more important than many realise. His 69 in the first Test at Cardiff was the top score in England’s first innings total of 435 on a belter of a pitch. It did as much as any other contribution by an England batsman to persuade Australian captain Ricky Ponting to bat well into the afternoon session on the fourth day before declaring at 6/674, a decision which left Australia’s inexperienced bowling attack insufficient time to take the remaining 10 English wickets needed for victory.
The fact that the English media focused more on the manner of KP’s dismissal in the first innings — a loose looking top-edged sweep against the off-spin of Nathan Hauritz — than the fact that he was England’s top-scorer says a lot about the ambivalent relationship between KP and the country whose national symbol he has tattooed on his arm.
The truth is: England needs KP. And KP needs England.
England are a well-drilled and highly professional unit. But KP offers them something that their solid pros, for all their many virtues, simply cannot — the ability to take a Test match away from the opposition in a single session. He is a match-winner, a game-changer who is not just respected, but feared by opposing sides. Such cricketers do not grow on trees, nor can they can be incubated in ECB-patented test tubes at Loughborough University.
KP wants “10,000 Test runs”. He’s not going to get that playing in the IPL.