Australia vs England is always a special occasion, and the first match of any Test series as a resumption of history is always a little bit special. What marks out next month’s contest at the Gabba for extra-special specialness is that it will combine these with the reaching of a milestone for a true England batting great. Kevin Pietersen is currently sat on 99 Tests, at the Gabba he will become the 10th England player to reach 100 Tests and of those he is the man with the highest batting average. Already he has passed the number of Test centuries made by Graham Gooch; only captain Alastair Cook has matched him.
It is fitting that a Test career which began against the England’s adversaries from Down Under should mark it’s hundredth match against the same foe, and in some respects Pietersen’s is the career which has most obviously branded a changing of the guard in the relations between the two sides. In 2005 England faced what could only be described as a brutal juggernaut who had been thumping, bullying and systematically taking them apart for the best part of two decades. Kevin Pietersen not quite single-handedly reversed that, but he gives the switch in fortunes it’s most obvious personification – look at the two sides then and now:
In 2005 Australia had Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath. England in 2013 have Cook, Bell, KP, Anderson, Prior, Broad and Swann. I wouldn’t compare England’s 2013 batch to the Australian 2005 unit very favourably as individuals to individuals, but in terms of being stronger, more proven and more clinical than their contemporaries in the opposition camp they are quite similar. In 2005 Australia were obscene favourites to win the Series. They were settled, had weapons across their team, oozed runs right though until Brett Lee and Warne at 8 and 9, and had bashed England about since before I was even born. That they didn’t win was because England were brave, balanced and went for the throat, then a metronomical robot of a fast bowler stood on a ball during a warm-up, and for a few games in a row England’s bowling unit performed above themselves. It can happen in professional sport, but probably oughtn’t have.
Fast forward to now. As well as Pietersen on 99 Tests, England have Alastair Cook on 97, Ian Bell on 93 and James Anderson on 87, and then further down Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann on 72, 62 and 57 Tests respectively. Australia have only their captain Michael Clarke with more than 50 caps, and his back is creakier than Australia’s top three. This is why in 2013 it is England who look likeliest to take their fourth straight Ashes series – likeliest but not certainties; though England’s current XI is full of experienced and proven great players for England, an all-time World elect side they are not.
Australia’s quicks could somehow get fit at the same time and click like Jones, Flintoff, Harmison and Hoggard did in 2005. They certainly have the ability in them. Steve Smith could defy his batting ability and rachet up a series at number 6 as Flintoff did. James Anderson could stand on a ball. With just two runs needed, DRS could prevent Broad taking the wicket of the Australian number 11 as a result of his hand not touching the handle of the bat. In short, anything could happen – cricket and Test cricket in particular is a game in which quite often the outcome isn’t decided on the vast majority of the play, it is about seizing and forcing the moments which are vital (see Broad’s spell at Durham this year). Tests ebb and flow and there is always a feeling of who the game is going to, but at the end of the day not a lot happens of significance, 90% of the time. In the Edgbaston Test in 2005, over 1600 balls were delivered. Just 40 of them resulted in a wicket – about 2.4% or one per every forty-one balls. These are probably quite a high figures as it was a high-ish scoring, fast paced Test crammed into 4 days, which only makes the point further. Thus those bowlers with higher “strike rates” are invaluable, especially those who can simultaneously maintain a low economy rate.
Conversely and obviously, it is the job of a batsman to not get out. Also to score runs before he does. The difference here being that whilst the bowler is the trigger action of the sport, the batsman is the reaction to this trigger (then the fielders and even the non-striker are the reaction to the reaction to the trigger). A batsman is thus limited to what shot he can play depending on the line, the length, the field, the pitch, the weather, the pace of the ball, plus whatever other multitude of factors which might come into play. Occasionally and particularly in Test cricket, these factors will be stacked up against the batsman. The pitch could be a slow, low turner; the field well set; the bowling tight; the scoreboard pressure incomprehensible. In these situations, some batsmen can stay in for a while and some can slog for a while, before usually the inevitable happens. Kevin Pietersen on the other hand is capable of something special: He’s capable of coming in, surveying the situation, completely ignoring it, and being successful just by being Kevin Pietersen.
I’ll steal these two examples from Stumped4aduck:
“Kevin Pietersen 158 v Australia The Oval 2005. Draw: England needed to hold out on the final day of the riveting ’05 series to reclaim the Ashes for the first time in nearly two decades. This was no easy proposition against an attack comprising McGrath, Warne, Lee and a young Shaun Tait. England were wobbling after lunch until Pietersen’s brutal assault on Lee and Warne helped secure a famous draw and thus the fragile urn.”
“Kevin Pietersen 142 v Sri Lanka Edgbaston 2006. Eng win: This was an innings which exemplifies why, a bit like Warney, people forgive KP his sins. Against Malinga, Vaas and Murali, KP stood out like a beacon across both teams on what was obviously a challenging wicket. A casual look at the innings totals – 141, 295, 231 and 4-81 – would suggest Pietersen’s magical innings from just 157 deliveries was the product of a man playing on a completely different sphere from all others in the game. Indeed when he came in England were 2/69 and he was dismissed with the score at 6-290, playing very much a lone hand, which set up a 1-0 series lead for his nation.”
On top of those two you can add his glorious match-winning 151 in Colombo in 2012, as well as that absurd 149 against South Africa at Headingley last year, not to mention his two massive centuries in India which stand out as not only magnificent innings’, but those on that “completely different sphere from all others in the game”. And these are just the examples which came to the top of my dim head; the man is simply a phenomenon.
As well as the runs and the great innings, there is just an excitement in watching him. Pietersen provides the X Factor (for want of a less ironically used phrase). He might not end up on as many Test runs as Alastair Cook or even with as high an average as Jonathan Trott, but he offers something altogether more brutal, more powerful, more thrilling. From that nervous sprinted first single to get off the mark, the front foot intent on coming down the wicket no matter how quick the bowler, the ego mind games whenever a slow left armer is brought on to bowl around the wicket to him, the ‘switch-hit’, his propensity to drop sitters, the knowledge that he sees two men out on the hook as a challenge rather than a trap, front foot pull shots bludgeoned past mid-on, and ultimately the clear underlying desire to dominate everyone and anyone. Especially Australia. KP, we have had our ups and downs, but today, I salute you.