Saturday, 14 October 2006

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?

Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen, two of the most charismatic competitors in the modern game, go head-to-head again this winter in one of the most eagerly anticipated Ashes contests in history.

Australia are of course determined to regain the famous old urn, which they surrendered to the better side in England just fourteen months ago. England, meanwhile, are looking to retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time since Mike Gatting’s side achieved the feat twenty years ago.

The Pietersen-Warne battle turned out to be one of the highlights of the 2005 Ashes and it will no doubt prove to be so again. However, there is no hint of ill-feeling between these two steely competitors, far from it in fact.

Since Pietersen’s move to Hampshire in the close season before the 2005 campaign Warne and KP have become good mates on and off the field. No other cricketers grace the front and back pages quite as much as these two in either country. They are both great showmen on and off the field and the media rightly love them, but Warne’s friendship with Pietersen has attracted criticism from former Australia captain Kim Hughes who thinks that the chumbyness of the Australian team contributed to their defeat.

When Pietersen made his move to Hampshire following his heroics for England in the ODI series in South Africa, he was not in the England Test match squad. That was soon to change though, in no small part because Pietersen was demonstrating an ability to read Warne’s magical bowling in the nets at Hampshire.

Pietersen’s combative and aggressive qualities were seen as necessary attributes for possibly the most fiercely contested competition in cricket, but it was his ability to play Shane Warne that the selectors valued most. England have often succumbed to Warne’s wizardry in the past with batsman often showing a worrying lack of judgement against the Australian legend. Images of Ian Bell padding up to the great one at Lords leave cricketing fans the world over cringing in their seats.

From the moment KP arrived at the Rose Bowl, Warne was alert to the threat which the young former South African posed to Australia that summer. As we all know Warne is usually a good judge of a player and he genuinely believed that KP had the class to become one of the world’s best in both forms of the game. As the Ashes series neared the two became close friends and Warne, along with the majority of England fans, was disappointed when Pietersen was not named in the England squad to face Bangladesh at the start of the summer.

Still, Warne believed in KP, so much so that he eyed him up as his 600th Test wicket and it would be fair to say that Warne’s experience and support proved invaluable to Pietersen in his battle to work his way into the England Test squad at the rather unfortunate expense of Graham Thorpe, when perhaps it was in fact the young rookie Bell who should have made way. Pietersen went on to offer invaluable advice to his England team mates on how to play Warne the psychological sledger; essentially you have to play the ball and ignore him, or you start to believe that you really are as bad as he persistently tells you!

Warne needs no introduction. With the most Test wickets in history, Shane is in a class of his own, but it is debatable as to whether or not the great one still has the magical fingers that he once possessed. Warne’s 2006 county season, by his own extremely high standard, was a little below par. His ability to bowl the googly has seriously receded due to a long-standing shoulder worry and he is perhaps not quite the threat that he once was.

However he is undoubtedly still a wonderful bowler and he often saves his best for the big stage and can even be a threat with the bat as he showed at Old Trafford last summer. His slip catching is also superb. During the Australian summer he was still at his fluent best with the ball, terrorising the West Indian and South African batting line-ups and he will be looking to continue his fantastic Ashes record.

Meanwhile Pietersen has experienced fluctuations in form over the winter and during the English summer. Critics suggest that his attacking instincts may be his downfall in the return series in Australia and Warne will be looking to exploit his friend’s liking for cow-corner, with Brett Lee no doubt eager to throw in a few bouncers for good measure. But it was KP’s aggression which makes him the player he is and which helped England to victory in 2005.

Whatever the uncertainties about the pair’s form leading up to the Ashes, there can be no doubting that both will once again play a serious part in deciding the outcome of this latest Ashes contest. Similarly you can be certain that there will be a friendly drink when the dust settles. Let us hope that Warne is buying, having congratulated Pietersen on an Ovalesque innings once again.

Chris Pallett

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