No.2 on Wisden’s list of the best Test innings of the 2000s is Kevin Pietersen’s Ashes-winning 158 at The Oval.
Kevin Pietersen 158 (187 balls)
England v Australia, 5th Test
The Oval, London
September 8-12, 2005
“I remember reading on the back of one of the papers that morning that England needed a hero,” the protagonist later wrote. “I decided that I was going to be that hero.”
It really was that simple for Kevin Pietersen on the final day of the greatest series, with England needing a draw to clinch it. Never mind that they hadn’t won the Ashes in 18 years. Never mind that this was just his fifth Test. Never mind an attack led by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and supplemented by the daunting pace of Brett Lee and Shaun Tait. Failure wasn’t something Pietersen ever countenanced much.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t falter. Billy Bowden could so easily have raised his finger from the first delivery Pietersen faced when the ball deflected off the 25-year-old’s shoulder to second slip. The Australians appealed vigorously for a McGrath hat-trick, but Bowden’s eyes had seen it correctly. Matthew Hayden couldn’t hold on to an edge that flicked Adam Gilchrist’s glove. Warne was the guilty culprit at first slip when Lee forced a nick from a flashing drive. Pietersen looked fallible and was beginning to feel that way.
At lunch, he sat in the dressing room with an ice pack on his ribs to nurse the pain Lee had caused with the short ball. Pietersen “looked petrified”, his captain Michael Vaughan later said, but some reassuring words from the skipper ensured that any negativity wouldn’t persist in the following session. Pietersen’s role wasn’t to back down but to attack, much as he had done across the series. Much as he did for the rest of his career. Five wickets down and just 133 in front, England still needed a hero, and Pietersen had no option but to be one.
What followed was extraordinary. The electric Lee sent down 13 balls to scare the life out of you and me – but not Pietersen. He took them for 35 runs, his hook shots never entirely clean but imbued with enough spirit to carry them to the rope. A cross-batted slap down the ground for four was the crowning moment of that staggering sequence of hitting, confirming that it was now the batsman dictating terms.
By tea, Pietersen had his maiden Test hundred. Not long after, he walked off with 158 runs to his name and the Ashes all but regained. The MBE came next, and the runs kept on flowing. Sure, controversy arrived and never truly left, ultimately serving as the closing chapter in the KP story, but the definitive innings kept on coming too: from Adelaide to Colombo, to Leeds, to Mumbai.
But everything began here, at The Oval. Here, Kevin Petersen was that hero.