Ever seen a butcher joint a chicken, or a fishmonger fillet a snapper? Or a master chef chop vegetables, or an expert fisherman cast a fly? Looks easy doesn’t it? And then you go home and try it and you damn near slice your finger off or end up in an almighty tangle, fly stuck in your ear.
At the heart of every great performance is an illusion. Mastery of an art, whether it is batting, acting, cooking or fishing, brings everyman simplicity and control. But don’t ever forget that it is deceptive: it only ever comes after long hours of practice and training. It is why sportsmen nearly always react to a great performance by saying how difficult it was. It is not false modesty, merely a reflection of a truth not apparent to the untrained eye.
Kevin Pietersen made batting look very simple indeed yesterday. He made 186 and, like Tommy Cooper, he seemed to score the runs just like that; without a hint of doubt, of insecurity or of struggle.
In a personal context, given the problems of the summer and the indignity of the first Test, it was amongst his most important contributions.
In the context of the game it was priceless. He helped England to an 86-run lead, and India lost five wickets overhauling it and seven in all before the close of another extraordinary day’s play.
England’s spinners once again looked more penetrative than the home team’s, sharing those seven wickets between them. Five went to Monty Panesar who bowled at a quicker pace than the other spinners in the game for his success.
At the sight of Pietersen’s mastery it is tempting to wonder about the state of the pitch, or the bowlers, but it is a temptation that must be resisted. Pietersen made the bowlers look ordinary, including an off-spinning great with more than 400 Test wickets, another who had reached 50 Test wickets quicker than any other Indian spinner, and a left-armer who had intimated that he had Pietersen’s measure. He made the pitch look docile, too, but this is all part of the magic show, part of the illusion.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Alastair Cook have also made things look easy in this game, but other good batsmen have not. Batsmen such as Jonny Bairstow, the rookie, caught at silly point for nine, as he naively looked to turn to leg against the spin, hands as hard as Brighton rock. Batsmen such as Samit Patel, softer of hands than Bairstow and more natural-looking against spin, but who had no answer when Pragyan Ojha lured him forward and took his edge.
Nor did things seem so simple when Pietersen got out, finally, flapping at a wide one from Ojha.
England’s last four wickets fell for 31 thereafter, amidst a flurry of spitting deliveries, appeals, and panicky runs, such as the one that cost Matt Prior his wicket when sent back by Stuart Broad. Once Pietersen had departed the scene, to a rousing reception from the locals that brought repeated acknowledgement from the batsman, reality returned.
India’s batsmen struggled post- Pietersen, too. Virender Sehwag poked to gully; Pujara to short leg; Sachin Tendulkar was undone by Panesar for the second time in the game, ironically by one that did not turn this time; Yuvraj Singh gloved to short leg and Mahendra Singh Dhoni edged to slip where Jonathan Trott snaffled the catch and out-Montied Monty in his celebrations. There was a whiff of panic, summed up by Virat Kohli, who inexplicably hit a full toss to mid-off, and Ravichandran Ashwin, who charged and skied with two overs to go.
Having asked for a rank turner, India were being hoist by their own petard, as Swann and Panesar ran amok in fiendishly difficult conditions. Only Gautam Gambhir stood firm.
The deceptions promoted by Cook and Pietersen, as they both went about their 22nd Test hundreds, equalling the record for England shared by Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoffrey Boycott, were slightly different. Cook’s sleight of hand was that it was easy to stay in; Pietersen’s that it was easy to score quickly. Opposition bowlers and captains fear both types but the latter more because of the speed at which they can change the game.
Cook’s superb hundred, his fourth in consecutive matches as captain, came up 35 minutes into the day’s play when he drove the first ball from Harbhajan Singh to the cover fence. Pietersen’s hundred, an outrageous reverse sweep off the same bowler, came up just ten minutes later and in 109 balls fewer.
It was the perfect start in a session that was always likely to be crucial, given that the first sessions of the previous two days had accounted for eight wickets.
That only two wickets fell, then, was further evidence of the way the tide was flowing. It took a pearler from Ashwin to get rid of Cook — an off spinner that curled, spun and brushed the outside edge — and a controversy to get rid of Bairstow, on lunch, when replays suggested the ball might have hit the grille of Gambhir’s helmet as he took the catch at silly point. As the India team took the field afterwards, it looked as though the umpires had asked whether Dhoni wanted to retract his appeal, but India’s captain was right not to do so.
Given the state of the pitch, some of Pietersen’s strokes, either side of lunch, were extraordinary. Three times he fetched Ojha over square leg from outside off stump; once he danced and drove Harbhajan against the spin over mid-off for six. There was a scoop over leg slip, a carrom ball, picked at the last minute and walloped over extra cover and, best of all, a lovely, languidly hit cover drive for six off the left-arm spinner. All these shots looked easy; all had the highest degree of difficulty. Do not try them at home.
It was an innings that no other England batsmen in recent history could have conceived, let alone played. Twice now in three Tests — remember Headingley? — Pietersen has played innings that must rank amongst the finest ever played by an England player and the hope is that the consequences of this second hundred are rather more productive than the first. The Twitter account @KPgenius might have disappeared, but KP genius is back.