Ashes 2013: Kevin Pietersen's scratchy ton at Manchester could prove pivotal in England retaining the urn

Kevin Pietersen’s century has all but erased the possibility of a humiliating innings defeat © Getty Images

By Jaideep Vaidya

It wasn’t a typical Kevin Pietersen ton. The overflowing panache and the over-enthusiasm in going for silky, yet aggressive strokes was missing. He had just about managed to keep his spot in the side after a sore calf had forced England to select a backup in James Taylor. Unfortunately for the youngster and fortunately for England and Pietersen, his services weren’t required. Leave alone this Test match, Pietersen was a doubt for the entire Ashes summer when he injured his knee in the Test series against New Zealand earlier this year. However, the 33-year-old decided to postpone the inevitable surgery and made himself available for the first leg of the Ashes, perhaps more fragile than he would have liked but available for his team’s cause in the most  important series.

After 113 runs of playing through the barriers of pain and confidence (his last four innings read scores of 14, 64, 2, 5) on Day Three of the third Test at Manchester, Pietersen, had rescued England from a position where the possibility of being forced to follow-on was high to one where they are actually confident of their lower order, or the ‘engine room’ as they like to call it, taking them as close to Australia‘s 527 as possible. At 294 for seven, it does sound like heightened optimism from the home side. But then a positive attitude is the least the rest of the English team can offer after Pietersen almost batted through the day and all but erased the possibility of a humiliating innings defeat.

He walked in to bat with the score at 68 for three. Jonathan Trott had just nicked Ryan Harris to the slips after an edgy and uncomfortable hour at the crease where he managed just five runs. Pietersen was no better at the start of his innings. The Australian pace bowlers invited him to drive deliveries angling away wide of off-stump, and Pietersen obliged by offering the edge of his blade as bait. It was almost painful watching him do it, even as a neutral. On a track that was baked with the Manchester August sun for more than two days, Pietersen would have had no excuse had he managed to find an edge. Fortunately for him and his team, his nervousness, coming from being under pressure for need of runs, deemed him incapable of even putting bat to ball on his first three balls faced.

Before you could realise it, Pietersen somehow managed to get himself 11 runs. Then came the first two shots of release. Mitchell Starc was gloriously pulled to the deep midwicket fence on consecutive deliveries as Pietersen decided to break the shackles. It took some more time for the tentativeness to fade away: an almost ludicrous French cut brought up one of his initial few boundaries. But the confidence in going for the shots slowly came back to him. Any more wide deliveries outside off were met with a powerful cross-batted shot through the cover-point region, rather than poking at it with a straight bat. Slowly, Pietersen rearranged the field, as he did Michael Clarke’s bowling plans.

Off-spinner Nathan Lyon was picked out for special treatment. Pietersen is one of the better players of spin in the world today and he highlighted the fact by charging down the track and lofting Lyon for consecutive sixes down either arm of the ‘V’ to bring up his half century. On a day when Clarke would have expected his only specialist spinner to bowl majority of the overs, at least 30, Pietersen ensured that he bowled only 16. In the post-match presser, when he asked whether picking on Lyon was part of the plan, Pietersen casually said, “Every spinner I play, I whack.”

On 62, Pietersen struck a bit of fortune after Australia decided against going for a DRS (Decision Review System) of a turned-down leg-before decision that replays showed was worth referring. A cheeky smile greeted Australian coach Darren Lehmann’s signal to his team from the dressing room that it was out. Pietersen thanked the Australians for their generosity by going on to score his 23rd Test century, which left him only two behind his skipper Alastair Cook in what is looking like a superb healthy race that is only benefitting England. He also went past Graham Gooch’s record run tally for England across all formats (13,190) — something he wasn’t even aware of. Typical Pietersen.

Finally, he was to run out of luck, agonisingly, 10 overs before the end of play. Starc got Australia the big fish via a leg-before, which was reviewed by Pietersen but confirmed by the DRS. His 113 had taken an unusual 206 balls, but had more importantly taken England within inches of the follow-on mark. It wasn’t a 186 in Mumbai, but it wasn’t a mind-numbing innings either. It was an extremely responsible knock under pressure, after England’s much hyped batting troika of Cook, Jonathan Trott and himself were slowly beginning to be questioned for their form, or lack of.

Pietersen has had a difficult last 12 months, ever since the now infamous summer of discontent following the texting scandal and the see-saw on his retirement plans that followed. Good form in India marked his return to the side, but the knee injury earlier this year cruelly pegged him back again. His relationship with his adopted country is an odd one. There are quite a few elements associated with England cricket who couldn’t care less if Pietersen’s form slumped and he was booted out of the team, but that would not prevent him from being the first name of the team sheet in times of crisis. Pietersen knows it, and has accepted it, which was evident in the interaction with the media following his Day Three, where he stuck to monosyllabic responses. Even his celebration on reaching three figures was quite low key.

All this gives out the message to his detractors that he is out there to do a job and nothing else, which is what he has been doing ever since he was first showcased to the world by England during the 2005 Ashes. Saturday’s ton at Manchester was his first in the Ashes in England after his stupendous 158 at The Oval in his debut series. For all you know, it may well have the same consequence: a drawn Test match that hands England the urn.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)