On September 12, 2005, a 25-year-old batsman with a blond mohawk who went by the name of Kevin Pietersen announced himself to the world by trailblazing his way to a match-saving century against Australia in the final Test of the Ashes to win England the urn. Jaideep Vaidya recounts the day that turned a chapter in the annals of English cricket.
It was a day that could go down in history as one of the best England cricket, and everybody related to it, has ever experienced. Not since Ian Botham‘s whirlwind antics 24 summers ago had a series captivated the imagination of the entire nation, along with millions of neutrals and, of course, Australians around the world. Not since the winter of 1986-87 had England ever held the Ashes urn in their hand. And now, on the merriest of Mondays, leading 2-1 in the series and going into the final day of the fifth and final Test of the rubber, England were favourites to get through to the end of the day unbeaten, on 39 for one in the second innings with a lead of 45.
Not that the score mattered, because the preparations for the extravaganza that would be winning back the urn had started right after England won the fourth Test at Nottingham to go 2-1 up. It had already been leaked to the press that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had booked an open-top bus to parade the team around London if (read: when) the final Test was over. The result of the match, at least for majority of the Englishmen, sans perhaps the team itself, was a mere formality. That this could go on to have a counter-productive result, with the possibility of the Australians getting the extra bit of motivation to ruin England’s party, did not seem to cross their minds.
The Oval was sold out well before Michael Vaughan won his fourth toss of the series and put his team in to bat on what was looking like a typically dry pitch. Enthusiastic spectators who hadn’t thought it wise to book their tickets in advance were seen clambering onto the nearby rooftops to catch a glimpse of the action. The England openers made merry under the bright sun and blue skies on Day One, reaching 82 without any damage. It was here that Shane Warne, who had been introduced into the attack on the hour mark in the first session, began spinning his way through the English line-up. Warne, who had 28 wickets to his name already in the series, was then responsible for sending the first four English wickets back to the pavilion. Andrew Strauss and Andrew Flintoff then weaved together a 143-run stand to stem the fall of wickets. Strauss, playing his preferred anchor role, patiently brought up his seventh century in 19 Tests; Flintoff too wasn’t totally his slam-bang self and consumed 115 deliveries for his 72 before Glenn McGrath got the better of him with a snorter. In the end, England managed 373 — perhaps 50-odd less than they would have hoped for before start of play, but a decent total at that.
It was then Matthew Hayden‘s turn to do a Strauss as he played a rather uncharacteristic yet effective knock, putting on 112 with Justin Langer until tea on Day Two, which was all the action possible on the day due to rain and bad light. The incessant English weather persisted on Day Three, much to the home crowd’s delight and the away support’s annoyance. Australia’s score could just reach 277 for two until play was called off again, but not before Hayden and Langer had both notched up uncharacteristic tons. Hayden, under pressure due to a drought, played a watchful innings like never before, taking almost seven hours for his 138 at 45.54, while Langer played the aggressor with 105 from 146 balls at almost 72.
Australia looked well placed going into Day Four, before Flintoff decided to intervene. The burly, spirited all-rounder bowled 14.2 overs unchanged from the Pavilion End on either side of the lunch break and produced what he considered “one of my finest performances with the ball for England”, taking his second five-wicket haul in Tests. Matthew Hoggard took four himself as England wrapped up the Australian innings for 367, the last seven wickets falling for just 33 runs, giving themselves a six-run lead and pole position for remaining unbeaten. They lost Strauss early in the second innings, to Warne, and were on 39 for one at stumps on Day Four. They would have to bat out 60-70 overs on the final day to see out a draw, considering the weather allowed those many overs.
It should have been a comfortable night if you were in the English camp, but not for Vaughan it wasn’t. After all, no England captain had ever felt the sensation of holding aloft the urn after Mike Gatting had done so in Sydney in 1986-87. “I didn’t sleep well that Sunday night, I was so desperate to get it over with,” Vaughan was to tell the Telegraph later. “I woke at six and looked out the window for some cloud, and knew the old bat would have to come out of the bag. I drove in with [Paul] Collingwood and thought in nine or ten hours’ time I might be the man who lifts the urn. When I got into the dressing room, where the lads were a bit louder than usual, I realised we couldn’t get it wrong: we had to deliver because it might be the one chance in our lives to beat Australia.” That being said, he did try to calm down the nerves of his team the previous evening with a brief pep talk. “This is what we have prepared for. This is what we have waited for. Enjoy it,” he told them.
The sell-out crowd greeted the two teams on the morning of Day Five with vociferous cheers. It was a day when history could, and in all likelihood would, be made. Fans still strolled along the periphery of the Oval in the hope of a stray ticket or two; the others skipped work on Monday and took to the bars early in the morning. Vaughan instructed his team to play in a positive fashion and that’s exactly how England started off, with Marcus Trescothick and his captain pushing along the score and the match further and further away from Australia. England reached 67 without any damage, before McGrath produced a couple of back-to-back rippers that found the outside edges of Vaughan and Bell. To face the hat-trick ball, out stepped Kevin Pietersen.
A lot had been written about England’s latest recruit from the Rainbow Nation. Yes, he was one of the cleanest strikers of the ball anyone had ever seen in a long time and cleared distances further than even Flintoff. After his One-Day International (ODI) debut the previous year, he had struck three centuries against his country of origin and had come into his first Test series on the back of an unbeaten 91 against Australia at Bristol. Nobody disputed the fact that he was an exceptional talent. The only issue was the manner of some of his dismissals, which critics put down to his superstar lifestyle, attitude and personality. He was by no means a Mike Atherton or a Nasser Hussain; he was not the good ol’ boy next door. Pietersen belonged to the latest generation of cricketers who got their bodies inked, dyed their hair, and sported earrings. It didn’t help his reputation when he became the ambassador of a jewellery brand either. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, former England opener Geoffrey Boycott commented: “Pietersen’s hubris seems to be getting the better of him. He wants to be the superstar, he wants the acclaim and the adulation, but he has not yet put in the performances to back up that attitude.”
Pietersen did not get what all the fuss was all about. He had gone through his share of struggles after emigrating from his country of birth to try and get acquainted with new surroundings and new people. Evidently, it wasn’t so easy, no matter how talented he was. “I’m not your conventional cricketer and they don’t seem to like that,” he wrote in his autobiography Crossing the Boundary. “But times have changed. Cricket is fashionable, after this series, and I am at the forefront of that. It bugs me because no one trains harder or works harder at their game than me. Nothing I do off the field does ever or will ever detract from the way I play cricket. Peripheral matters that bring publicity to this great game are fine as far as I’m concerned, as long as they don’t get in the way of the main business. And they don’t.”
Pietersen’s ODI heroics hadn’t translated into the Test arena. He had started the series well, with three half-centuries, but after that had scores of 20, 21, 0, 45, 23 and 14 to show. And he knew that the scathing critics were just waiting for another flop innings to pass the verdict on his credentials as a Test batsman. So, as McGrath, one of the greatest pace bowlers of all time, came charging in to deliver the hat-trick ball, the nerves going through Pietersen’s system would have been substantial. McGrath surprised the greenhorn with a short one which Pietersen just about managed to evade, as the ball brushed his shoulders and carried to the slips. Australia appealed loudly, but umpire Billy Bowden was cool as a cucumber as he rightly turned it down. Phew!
Next up was Warne. Pietersen was well acquainted with him after sharing a dressing room playing together for Hampshire, but this was a different stage altogether. This was the biggest stage of them all, against arguably the greatest leg-spinner the world has ever seen, in prime form no less. Warne angled the ball in the ball around off-stump; Pietersen pusheds and found the edge; the ball took a slight deflection off Adam Gilchrist’s gloves and went towards Hayden at first slip, who dropped it. Strike 1. A few more nervy minutes later, with another eight long overs to go until lunch, Brett Lee steamed in and bowled outside off; Pietersen went for the drive, but failed to connect with the meat of the bat and nicked it again; the ball went flying towards Warne in the slips at neck-height — a total lolly; however, it slapped against the upturned hands of the fielder and bounced back on the ground. Strike 2. Would there be any more?
Hell, no, said Pietersen as he decided that enough is enough. He decided that he is not going to lie down and play negatively for the remaining 60-70 overs. He decided that he is going to play his natural game and give this packed house a day to remember. He walks down to Trescothick and told him, “I’m just going to whack it now,” and that is exactly what he did. Noticing that Warne did not have a cow corner in place for him for the first time in the series, Pietersen clubbed the leg-spinner for two sixes yonder. Warne, never one to get bogged down, responded by trapping Trescothick leg-before and then lured Flintoff into giving him a simple return catch. From 67 for one, England had slipped to 126 for five. When lunch was taken, Australia trailed by just 132 and needed another five wickets to bat again and go for what was now a conceivable win. The Aussies were attacking and all pumped up; Lee had hit Pietersen a couple of times with his express bouncers. It needed an extremely valiant and defiant innings to hold England together for the rest of the day and bat out at least the next session. Vaughan recalled: “Pietersen at lunch asked me what to do about [Brett] Lee, and I said attack: hook him, drive him, take him on. Little did I know the ball would soon be flying round the Oval.”
After lunch, Pietersen moved from 35 to 76 in just 15 balls as he hooked Lee for two sixes into the crowd. It was counter-attacking batting at its best, from a rookie 25-year-old. Warne, in one of the biggest compliments to Pietersen’s approach, switched to a negative line of bowling around the wicket. But Pietersen showed that he is technically equipped for the longer format by nonchalantly taking Warne on. Lee continued his battle with Pietersen and hit him on the body three times; Pietersen responded by hitting him for a couple of sixes. Then came a shot that many would describe as the shot of the innings. Pietersen recalls: “Brett bowls fast, just outside off-stump, it is not quite short enough to pull so I somehow flat bat straight past the bowler, like a rocket, for a straight boundary. I have no idea how I play it. It is pure instinct. By this time I’m in a zone, a boundary zone, and it feels good.”
Pietersen pulverised the Australians right through the second session, and soon brought up his maiden Test century, off 124 balls that included 10 fours and four sixes. He had lost Paul Collingwood by then, but found an able ally in Ashley Giles even as England took tea at 221 for seven. Pietersen and Giles combined in one of the most memorable partnerships of the series as they frustrated the Australians in the final session. Giles had had a rollercoaster summer: after coming under severe criticism at the start of the series, he had bounced back in style to hit the winning runs at Trent Bridge, that got his side the 2-1 lead. “Shot, George,” Pietersen said to his George Clooney lookalike of a batting partner each time he got willow to leather. “Let’s talk again in six balls’ time. Make sure you are here,” they said to each other as they went along pushing Australia further and further away. Finally, McGrath produced a delivery, one he would have wished he had a couple of hours ago, that beat Pietersen’s defence and crashed through the stumps. As Pietersen walked back to the pavilion, with the Oval on its feet cheering their new hero with a blond mohawk, Warne ran up to him and said, “Savour this moment,” summing up the spirit the series had been played in, even as someone in the long room later yelled, “Get a haircut, Pietersen!”
England folded for 335, but not before Giles got to a half-century which was enough to seal the fate of the game. Vaughan instructed his players to wear England caps and leave the sun hats behind, but bad light ensured that the Australians could only bat for four balls before the players were sent back indoors. Finally, when the umpires saw no further play taking place, the bails were taken off. But the party in the England dressing room had already begun. Pietersen was rightly named Man of the Match; his innings went on to be called the most significant by an England player in a Test match. Flintoff wrote: “I’ve seen some really good innings from people like [Brian] Lara, [Nathan] Astle or [Gary] Kirsten but I think Kevin’s performance that afternoon at the Oval was the best of the lot. When you consider what was at stake and what and what could have happened had he not played that innings, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better one.”
Pietersen would himself describe it as “the day that changed my life,” and never looked back.
England 373 (Andrew Strauss 129, Andrew Flintoff 72; Shane Warne 6 for 122) and 335 (Kevin Pietersen 158, Ashley Giles 59; Shane Warne 6 for 124) drew with Australia 367 (Justin Langer 105, Matthew Hayden 138; Andrew Flintoff 5 for 78, Matthew Hoggard 4 for 97) and 4 for no loss.
Man of the Match: Kevin Pietersen
Man of the Series: Andrew Flintoff (England) and Shane Warne (Australia)