Pietersen passes test of character

Greatness in sport comes in many guises, but great players rarely fail to deliver when it matters. It mattered yesterday to Kevin Pietersen for a variety of reasons, most of them deeply personal. His response was emphatic and when, after a minute more than three hours of sublime batting, the crowd rose to acclaim his thirteenth Test century, and surely the one that meant most to him, they did so in the knowledge that not only had he provided magnificent entertainment on the day, but that here was an England batsman who belongs in the highest rank.

When Pietersen takes centre stage, as he did throughout yesterday afternoon, there remain only walk-on parts for his team-mates, but honourable mentions should be made of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, whose century opening partnership set England calmly on their way, and especially Ian Bell, who, in an unbeaten stand of 192 with Pietersen, got important runs when they were needed.

For South Africa, this was a chastening day. Graeme Smith, the captain, will take some flak for misreading the conditions and inserting England on a pitch that was neither quick enough to give his pace bowlers comfort nor receptive enough to produce the kind of movement he must have been hoping for. But, given the rain that had fallen for two days, it was an understandable decision and one that Michael Vaughan would also have made.

Moreover, a captain cannot be responsible for his bowlers’ performances. Whether because of nerves, inexperience or the pressure that bowlers invariably feel when a captain has put in the opposition, South Africa had a woeful first session. Needing to bowl a full length, they bowled short; needing to make the batsmen play, they bowled wide. Strauss and Cook, who might have been expecting the sternest of examinations, were allowed to breeze through the new ball with barely a question asked.

Things changed after lunch and so came the moment, at 2.50pm – when Pietersen walked out to face South Africa for the first time in Test cricket – that the day and, possibly, the summer had been waiting for. The atmosphere was heightened because England had just lost three wickets in 13 minutes, to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. These two smelt panic in England’s ranks and they knew that Pietersen lay between them and a peaceful night’s sleep.

What was Pietersen thinking? It was hard to know, given that the ECB had wrapped him in protective swaddling in the run-up to this Test. He would not have been human, though, if there were not a few more butterflies than normal and surely he had not forgotten the vicious reception he received against this team during the one-day matches that completed England’s last tour of South Africa, in 2004-05. They say that Tiger Woods, the world’s finest golfer, never forgets an insult; does Pietersen?

He was certainly pumped up. A quick single to get off the mark has become a trademark start to his innings, but even by his standards his first run off his second ball was of the kamikaze variety. Had Makhaya Ntini’s throw from mid-on been on target, Pietersen’s innings would have been stillborn. Thank goodness Ntini’s radar was awry, for the spectators would have been denied the drama that duly unfolded. Not that South Africa will share such sentiments.

Rather than verbals, this time South Africa gave Pietersen the silent treatment, the cold shoulder. So much so that he was reduced to striking up a conversation with Billy Bowden, the umpire, within his first few minutes at the crease. Not that the silence equated to a softly-softly approach. South Africa’s plan for Pietersen clearly involved a liberal sprinkling of bouncers and, er, a few more bouncers. One from Steyn early on crunched into the back of Pietersen’s helmet, which necessitated a visit from England’s physiotherapist and a time-out while Pietersen gathered his thoughts.

But after that there was precious little evidence of the planning that Smith had spoken about before the match. Mid-wicket, for example, Pietersen’s favourite area, was constantly left untenanted. Australia always had a catcher there, often two. Given the short stuff also directed outside Strauss’s off stump for most of the morning, it was a day that suggested Smith’s increasing maturity has not necessarily been accompanied by any great tactical advance.

Bell has often travelled in Pietersen’s slipstream and it was to his advantage yesterday. It was as if South Africa had spent so long plotting and planning how to react to Pietersen that they forgot about the man at the other end. Bell stroked his first ball silkily to the cover boundary for four and was into double figures three balls later. A blazing start subsided into something more sedate, but, having gone in with England under the cosh, these were the tough runs for which everyone has been calling.

As Bell changed down a gear, Pietersen changed up in quick time, the mark of a quality player. The introduction of Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner, was the catalyst. Given that Pietersen has mauled Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan during his career, Harris represented not so much a threat as an opportunity and Pietersen dismantled him with a variety of sweep shots, some hit square and ferociously hard, others played fine with the deftest of touches. Once he took the more direct route, popping him over long-on for six. Child’s play.

A hundred was there for the taking now. It came when Morkel, with the second new ball, served up something short and wide that Pietersen crashed to the cover-point boundary. His emotions came pouring out. And while the South Africa players could hardly be said to have bruised their palms, so cursory was the applause, the crowd responded magnificently. As Pietersen left the field undefeated, it felt as if Lord’s faithful had finally taken him to their hearts. The Times, 11 July 2008