A while ago, a good year or so probably, in one of our editorial meetings Chris and I were pontificating – because we pontificate well – as to what we could do for future pieces. I mentioned that although a massive fan of all that KP did for England (well, nearly all), it’s got to the point where the very mention of him has some of our supposed cricket lovers rolling their eyes, but that there were things that I would like to do around his career and put up as posts.
Chris, in his sage like way – because he sages well, a Yoda figure – said something along the lines of “you should write a series of articles on his great innings for England” but advised I should leave it “for a bit”. We discussed about how his innings impacted on English cricket, the important moments, the approach, and that I should do something in the vein of the piece I did on Thorpe’s centuries.
The thing is, I have nearly all of KP’s centuries on DVD. In either highlight form or in the case of two of his Ashes tons, in full. A number of them are also on youtube. So there’s plenty to look at and review in terms of material. Then there are the books written around the time of some of them, including KP’s tomes, varying as they are in usefulness for the purposes of this set of pieces (Glenn McGrath, on a speed read of his book, barely mentions the 2005 Ashes!). But throughout the review of the hundreds there’s nearly always that sense of utter brilliance that was, by pretty much common consent of all his peers in the team, beyond their comprehension.
Good friends of mine, who’ve known me decades, cannot understand why I am such a fan of Pietersen’s. He seems, in their eyes, to embody all I hate in sport. The flashness, the assuredness, the flamboyance, the appearance of I above Us. But I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. It can’t be abrasive characters because I’ve always sort of liked Nick Faldo. It can’t be talented geniuses who rub team mates up the wrong way because I love Brian Lara. I think they reference across to my “hatred” of Manchester United and especially David Beckham, but that was because I hated (and still do) United and he was the epitome of why. Pietersen was playing for my team, and in fact Beckham, post United was nowhere near as loathed when he played away from United and was a key player for England.
So for this series of pieces, which will take some time, and I may never finish, I’m going to look at all KP’s test hundreds. I may take one in one piece, may couple some together (going to struggle with that one to set up a declaration in the West Indies), but I’ll do it looking at the footage I have and discussing each one. Of course, that means the first is the 158 at The Oval in 2005, and books could be written on that one alone. As always, I’ll intersperse these pieces with personal recollections, photos if I have them (I saw three in the flesh, and the start of a fourth) and anything else that comes to mind. Pietersen is a divisive figure, putting it mildly, but it is because of what we saw, and how he did it, that makes those of us who were furious at the end of his England career how we are. How can you not want to see him do “this” again?
So…Part 1 – Century #1 v Australia at The Oval – September 2005… Coming Soon. But in the meantime, let’s get the introductory part to prepare for it.
To go into the story of the 158, you probably have to go back a long way to the way Pietersen’s career unfolded. But I’ll spare you the county details which you can read in Paul Newman’s ghost-written autobiography of Kevin Pietersen which came out soon after the Ashes victory. Instead the true beginnings were in Zimbabwe, at the tail end of 2004. All through that summer I recalled that Kevin Pietersen’s name was in contention for the A team, unconstrained by full country qualification requirements, and he’s played his part in a massive England A innings in India that also ended in a massive run chase by the home team to win the game. I’d seen Pietersen play at Whitgift School for Nottinghamshire against Surrey, and although remembered some clumps to leg, and a couple of big shots, I also recall falling asleep on the grass bank! That game pre-dated my Olympus Ultra-Zoom camera so no shots of the man from them.
Pietersen was picked for the Zimbabwe ODI tour which attracted, shall we say, a fair bit of controversy. I think, and I could be corrected here, that it was the last international tour not covered at all on live television in this country. So what came back were news reports and scorecards. In his debut he made 27 not out to steer England home to a relatively small total with a couple of overs to spare. Ian Bell had made his ODI debut too, and done very well, making 75, whereas the only report I could find on KP’s debut was:
Pietersen eventually hit the winning runs, but not before running out Collingwood and twice almost doing the same to Jones.
Some might say there was a warning right there. The second ODI, also in Harare, saw KP deliver a more substantial return. He made 77 not out in 76 balls, including three sixes, to get England to a very competitive 263 – he and Geraint Jones put on 120 in 13 overs and put the game out of the hosts reach.
Pietersen and Jones hit maiden one-day international half-centuries in a rollicking stand of 120 off 80 balls, which stood for four days as an England record for the sixth wicket against any opposition. Pietersen’s innings had the air of an announcement. Arriving in the 26th over with England stuttering on 94 for three, he was initially studious, taking 40 balls over his first 16 runs, before opening up to finish with 77 from 76, including four fours and three sixes.
As the Almanack expressed this as an “announcement”, the thought that KP might actually play for England in the next Ashes probably seemed fanciful. But Vaughan was beginning to be convinced, and maybe this is in hindsight, he thought KP had that “something” that was different. In the Third ODI, Pietersen wasn’t needed as a century from Solanki and 50s from Bell and Vaughan meant England chased down a total for the loss of two wickets. Game 4, also in Bulawayo (where the 3rd was played) saw KP get a first ball duck. But he’d done enough to convince the selectors he was worth a go for the ODI series in South Africa, and we pretty much all know what happened then.
That series, where Pietersen made three centuries (although none in a winning cause) ranging from the bravado of Bloemfontein, where one might say he went a little over the top in celebrating, to the rapid but ultimately fruitless explosion at East London, and the worthy but let down by his team mates 116 at Centurion. Pietersen had proved a point, and none more so than his international TV debut at Johannesburg where he confronted the hostility of a crowd and an opponent he had riled, stared them down, and held firm to assist a D/L win.
Nobody seemed happier than Pietersen, who was there at the end after being loudly booed while walking out for his first innings against South Africa, the country he abandoned in frustration at a perceived lack of opportunities. His initial exchanges with the always theatrical Nel provided the most dramatic moments of the game, with Pietersen struggling nervously for 11 balls before getting off the mark.
Pietersen weathered a hostile reception from the crowd, and the odd word from the fielders. After a nervous start – he played and missed at his first ball, at Nel – he proved a worthy replacement for Strauss, as he and Vaughan moved seamlessly through the gears. Vaughan brought up their fifty partnership from 73 balls with a forceful cover-driven four, while Pietersen’s thumping on-drive took England past 100.
The centuries and the attitude that was reported to come with it seemed to indicate a coming force, and conjecture already surrounded how he could be fitted in to the test team. Michael Vaughan claims that his mind was made up that in some way he had to be selected for the Ashes. A lot of weight was being put on whether you had “mental scars” from too many Ashes beatings. Here was a man, unburdened by history, it seemed, fearless and relentless. It seemed too good to be true. It probably was.
Seasoned cricket fans on this blog need few reminders about the events of early 2005. England’s test team had won in South Africa, without Ian Bell who had made his debut at The Oval against the West Indies the previous year. The England team that finally won in South Africa contained a line-up of Trescothick, Strauss, Key, Vaughan, Thorpe, Flintoff, Jones at the top of the order, and with Freddie being a clear choice at six, the main vacancy appeared to be Key’s. This was despite an impressive innings at The Wanderers, and a double ton in the home series before. Bell was clearly earmarked for three, judging by the press statements (Butcher had been injured in South Africa and never played another test) in advance of the home series against Bangladesh. There seemed little threat to Thorpe, who although creeping on in years, had been a vital cog in the previous series (his century in Durban making the game totally safe in a famous fightback, and also vital in the West Indies the winter before). Whispers started to surround Thorpe. He was too old, too many scars, going to retire soon etc. etc.
Those whispers weren’t made any louder by his form in the Bangladesh series, where I don’t believe he was dismissed, but also got little chance to make an eye-catching hundred, while Bell did at Chester-le-Street. The batting line-up seemed settled then, and in truth there was not a lot of noise for Pietersen. Then came that Sunday afternoon in Bristol.
I was out watching my club side that afternoon (my Mum was in the last throes of her cancer, and I took the chance to meet some friends as a brief release), and so have only seen the very repeated highlights on Sky. The innings that won the game had all the same bravura of South Africa. He dismantled Jason Gillespie in particular, and gave off that self-assured, confident demeanour that would delight and enrage in equal measure. He also had narrow escapes on run outs. But this was totally un-English in its approach. It reminded you of a more developed, more accomplished Ben Hollioake at Lord’s. It wasn’t really true until he did it here. Sure, he had played well in the T20, but this was nearer “proper cricket”. The crescendo grew.
I was at The Oval to see his 70-odd pull England to semi-respectability and it was the second time I’d seen him in the flesh. I really can’t remember a lot. My mum had passed away 11 days before it, and her funeral was the next day. As a release it was great, but as a day’s cricket, Australia’s win passed me by. My mind was more on what would happen the following day, putting the ill-fated eulogy into my head, worrying about my Dad and all that. Compared to the events of the following day, the effects of which persist to this day, seeing a KP 70-odd hardly resonates. But where it did, it mattered. Now the calls for Pietersen to be in the test team were unstoppable. And in the firing line was Graham Thorpe.
Now, as you may know, if you’ve read the blog long enough, Thorpe was/is one of my favourite ever players. His hundred in Barbados in 2004 is still one of the greatest innings I have ever watched for England. When he got to the hundred, that shot of adrenaline, the thing that makes your hair stand up on the back of the neck, was amazing. The ovation at Kensington was incredible. He had fought so hard, and you’d think that fighting that hard would be what was needed against Australia. We thought wrong.
When Pietersen was up for selection there was absolutely no doubt that Ian Bell would play. None. In hindsight we all say “well, he shouldn’t have played instead of Thorpe, it should have been Bell” but that was not on the cards. Thorpe was in danger. Pietersen batted in his position in the side – number 5. Thorpe was the oldest. Thorpe wasn’t mobile in the field. Thorpe had back problems. He looked vulnerable, and when the axe fell, it was on him. He’d just had his 100th test match, and it seemed a neat end. But there still are the pangs of “what if”?
I was fortunate enough to be at Days 1 and 3 of the first test match. Again, anyone with a passing interest in cricket does not need a reminder. KP came into bat at 20 for 3, saw two more wickets fall quickly, rebuilt the innings to a degree with Geraint Jones, and make a fifty, including smashing McGrath into the Lord’s Pavilion for 6. In the second innings he made another 50 in a totally hopeless cause, and despite a soul-crushing defeat, loads of dropped catches (although he did effect a run out) and all round feelings of “here we go again”, the man with the mad hairstyle had announced his arrival.
The Edgbaston test saw KP play his part in the rollocking 400 in 80 overs first day, with a quickfire 70-odd in concert with Freddie, and then a 20-odd in the second dig. Diminishing returns at Old Trafford, including his first test duck were lost in the tenseness of the test, and he did not pull up any trees at Trent Bridge.
So to the Oval. Here is where we pick up the story of Kevin Pietersen’s test centuries. The next instalment will be along when it is written. Keep your eye out…..