Kevin Pietersen had shown flashes of brilliance in his first four Tests, but was yet to produce a knock that would justify his talent. When he finally chose his moment, in the fifth Test of the 2005 Ashes series at The Oval, even the best in business had no answers.
A summer romance had reached its clinch. The Edgbaston DVD was already in the shops, 10 million had watched the gridlocked Manchester Test, and after Trent Bridge fell to England, London readied itself for the hellish last act.
For much of that week the Oval had been a strained place, its patrons struggling to believe they were engaged in some carnival of life rather than a week in A&E. Four days of nip, tuck, drizzle and luck had failed to prise them apart, and now, on day 25 of 25: this.
It’s Monday, September 12, 2005. A day for time to shut up, sit in its seat and not move a muscle.
After an innings each, the scores are pretty much level. England will resume one wicket down after Strauss, the first-day colossus, had prodded at Warne the night before.
For cricket’s legion of loyalists – wrestling with the unsettling new idea that the thing that matters more to them than anything else suddenly seems to matter to a whole load of others too – the tension brings about a terrible, gnawing fatalism.
And it doesn’t take long. Vaughan goes first, hanging his bat outside the lines of experience. Then Bell, first ball. Immediately England are 67-3; just 73 ahead. Five long hours to go.
In he comes.
Kevin Pietersen’s first ball from McGrath misses the glove by the width of a diamond bracelet. Not out. Minutes later, Brett Lee finds his edge, but Warne, in his only (on-field) error of judgment of the summer, grasses it. Still not out.
Warne bowls next. The ground’s a cathedral of angst. Pietersen circumspectly resolves to consolidate by dumping Warne’s first and fourth balls into the stands at mid-wicket. Not the done thing.
Trescothick’s next, pushing Warne to slip. Four down. And then Flintoff obliges Warne with a caught-and-bowled. Five. It’s 20 minutes until lunch, not that anyone will eat.
Those minutes belong to a different sphere. A possessed Brett Lee goes to work. Pietersen protects his face with his gloves, while shielding his ribs with that twig of a bat. Losing his wicket seems of secondary concern to getting out alive. One delivery explodes off the pitch and balloons off the top hand over the slips as, in one movement, Pietersen’s bottom hand breaks the fall caused by his whip-lashing spine. He survives. At 1pm the umpires demurely unseat the bails and call lunch. Forty minutes later Lee is at his mark again. One false move tips the series. Lee bowls three overs in his post-lunch spell, of which Pietersen faces 13 balls. Those bullets are caught in the teeth and repelled thus: 2, 2, 0, 6, 1, 0, 2, 6, 4, 4, 0, 4, 4.
In six overs after lunch he moves from 35 to 76. Both of those sixes are hooked from in front of his throat, accompanied, as often with Pietersen, by a guttural grunt upon impact, a mortal yelp from deep inside. Still he keeps swinging.
“It was the perfect, bizarre, unconventional innings for that stage of the game,” Flintoff tells All Out Cricket. “Watching it, I felt entertained, but I was also thinking, ‘What you doing?’ Going for a draw, pulling them past the umpire!
“When the ball gets faster your bat gets faster. You start hitting, out of fear, out of adrenaline…”
Pietersen goes to his hundred in 124 balls and at tea England are 227 ahead, seven wickets down. Straight after tea, as he hits his fifth and sixth sixes, the ground collapses into a carnival. The game in England will never be the same again.
First published in March 2015