Saturday, 2 December 2006

In praise of a superb stand

The magnificant 310 run partnership between Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen will have done much more than lift England into an unassailable position in the second Test. It has wrested the initiative in the series from Australia and gone some way to banishing the mystique and menace of McGrath and Warne.

It was not just the amount of runs the two English batsmen compiled, but the manner in which they got them. Collingwood's feat alone would be worthy of countless plaudits, being the first English batsmen since the peerless Wally Hammond to score a double hundred in Australia, but when it is added to Pietersen's relentless domination of the Australian bowlers it attains a far greater significance.

Collingwood's long apprenticeship in the England batting line-up has been well documented, as has his expected difficulty in dealing with the pace and bounce of Australian pitches. That he has now cemented his place in the line-up by batting impeccably on those surfaces is testament to the mental strength of the man. Granted the Adelaide pitch has been a batting paradise, with barely a delivery, other than Warne's biggest rippers, deviating from gun-barrel straight. But to score such a big innings against the Australians on their own turf, even on a benign surface, is a huge feat.

The maturity of Pietersen's innings should have silenced the doubters who still deride his temperament. After getting out for 92 so early on the fifth morning at Brisbane, Pietersen was unfairly criticised for having blown England's chance of grabbing an unlikely draw in the first Test. That his positive batting was largely the reason England had even had a chance of drawing the match was somehow forgotten.

In his innings yesterday Pietersen showed that he had deep reserves of concentration and excellent judgement as well as his natural flair and strokeplay. His destruction of Glenn McGrath and domination of Shane Warne was astonishing. There have been few batsmen, if any, who have forced Warne to adopt such negative tactics. Sure, Warne has bowled around the wicket since his first appearance on the Test scene, but that was an attacking line, ripping the ball viciously out of the rough, and he varied it with some over the wicket bowling to keep the batsman guessing. Yesterday, Warne bowled ball after tedious ball around the wicket with little concern other than to stem the flow of Pietersen's runs.

Pietersen patiently waited for the odd bad ball, putting most of them away, and outlasted Warne, who was simply unable to find a way to break through. It was a masterclass in how to play legspin and it will be interesting to see how Warne responds in the rest of the series.

Mcgrath's toothless bowling display was probably the result of several factors, the most important being that he no longer has the nip to take wickets on benign pitches, unless they are gifted to him by the batsmen. His sore heel and ageing body must also have played a part. Ricky Ponting may well be cursing the selection of his premier fast bowler, wishing he had had the raw pace of Mitchell Johnson or Shaun Tait, or the attacking wiles of Stuart MacGill.

What should not be forgotten, though, is how ruthless the England batsmen, and Pietersen in particular, targetted McGrath. It was reminiscent of the way Australian batsmen have gone for key opposition bowlers in their years of cricket dominance. There is no better way to make big innings than to nullify the best bowlers your opponents have to offer. To do so in the first couple of matches can dent confidence for a whole series and it will be fascinating to see if McGrath is able to regain the form he showed at Brisbane.

England supporters will be hoping that Collingwood and Pietersen are able to continue the rich vein of form they have found batting together in the last two innings. If they can achieve a few more partnerships just half as good as the superb one we witnessed yesterday England will not be far from posting the kind of scores they need to win Tests and retain the Ashes.

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