How to get Kevin Pietersen out? It is a question that, over two years of international cricket, will have occupied countless hours of team meetings. Yet he has continued to improve and has already scored at least one Test century against all his opponents, at a rate of very nearly one every three games, averaging over 40 against each side. Add in his phenomenal one-day performances – he is irrefutably England’s finest ever one-day batsman – and only Ricky Ponting, of current batsmen, can be a more daunting sight for bowlers.
A key feature of Pietersen’s batting lies in his ability to dominate all types of bowling. Yet, increasingly, he is learning to rein in his impetuosity, which has so often proved his downfall, and build larger innings. Equally, he is now increasingly content to start slowly in an innings, knowing he will have plenty of time to accelerate where, during the 2005 Ashes, his helter-skelter starts made his wicket overly vulnerable early on. The end result is a player less reckless and perhaps a tad less exhilarating – Simon Barnes recently lamented the end of “The Madness of King Kev” – but more effective. England fans are certainly not complaining.
Clearly, it is fair to say Pietersen has benefited from the markedly lower standard of quick bowling compared to, say, ten years ago. Yet his Test average of 53 is certainly not the result of serial gorging on bowling not deserving of the ‘Test’ label; he has not played against either Bangladesh or Zimbabwe and, only in the recent series against the West Indies was the opposition’s bowling particularly poor. And it is indicative of his relish for the big occasion and his batting quality that he averaged over 50 in both his series against Australia.
It seems almost all England series have a Pietersen duel (or duels) at their heart: Pietersen v Warne; Pietersen v McGrath; and Pietersen v Murali. Of these three tussles, Pietersen has dominated Warne as well as anyone of this era (average 61, his 0 at Adelaide notwithstanding); the clash with Murali, against whom he has scored at over 5 an over, is a dead heat; but McGrath, who has dismissed him five times at 27 apiece, has undeniably got the better of him.
McGrath’s record, unlike that of Warne and Murali, has no anomaly and no weakness; he has succeeded against all batsmen, everywhere, with his probing line and length and phenomenal consistency. His duel with Pietersen over the winter was intriguing; the batsman attempted to dominate in his characteristic manner, often walking down the pitch. But he underestimated McGrath who, though he had declined a little, still possessed sufficient bounce to embarrass Pietersen, who was caught recklessly in the Fifth Test and then seriously injuring his rib in a one-day international. The Englishman clearly wanted to hit him out of the attack, but the veteran was simply too good; for all his efforts, Pietersen’s strike-rate against McGrath in Tests is, at 50, 16 down on that of his career.
There is a pattern here. If Pietersen has a weakness, it is against high-class line-and-length bowlers; he tries to impose himself against them, but, due to seam, pace or bounce he cannot, and often falls to injudicious shots. Besides McGrath, the two best bowlers of this kind he has faced are undoubtedly Stuart Clark and Mohammad Asif, each of whom have patience, canniness and self-belief in abundance. He has done well against Clark, scoring 94 for just once out but, crucially, has scored these runs in a manner totally alien to him – an Atherton-esque 2.33 an over. Together with McGrath, he strangled Pietersen, in as much as that is possible against a player with his range of strokes, last winter. The prodigious young talent of Asif, meanwhile, has dismissed Pietersen three times – and he has scored just 19 runs in these innings. Of course, most batsmen have trouble against such outstanding bowlers, but he will surely seek to improve his discipline – and perhaps even his technique – against the moving ball. It is, perhaps, also a reason why England would be ill-advised to move him any higher than four in the batting order.
Generally, Pietersen has relished the fastest bowlers around – such as Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar – while he has taken an immense liking to other quicks (including left-armers) that are below the world’s top rung. Against even the highest calibre of spin, he has played many superb innings, his trio of 158s amongst them. But, it is certainly true that he has been susceptible early on in his innings; in innings when Warne has dismissed him, he averaged only 22, while, the three times Danish Kaneria has claimed his wicket, Pietersen has only scored a cumulative 22; once set, however, he has laid mercilessly into Kaneria, scoring two fine hundreds.
All the other Test nations palpably have a huge fear of Pietersen’s flashing blade. It is Pakistan, with the contrasting qualities of Kaneria and Asif, who evidently have the best-suited attack to dismissing him early in his innings. But, whatever the opposition throw at him, it seems sure Kevin Pietersen will continue to amass runs.