Alastair Cook (339 runs at 113) has led from the front with his second century of the series — and his fourth in his four Tests as captain. Graeme Swann (12 wickets at 24.91) and Monty Panesar (10 at 19) have accepted the early Christmas presents gifted by Indian groundsmen. But as resolute as the skipper may be, as adept as the tweakers are with the conditions in their favour, none can compete with the magic of Kevin Pietersen's innings in Mumbai.
Pietersen's 186 could not have said any more about his batting than if he had had a new creed inked under his Three Lions tattoo.
It was agenda-setting, logic-defying brilliance.
Conditions in Mumbai are ripe for spin, and though there have been three centurions in this Test, this knock was a level apart. Cheteshwar Pujara's effort for India was painstakingly patient, his 135 taking 350 to compile. Cook batted as he knew best, and eked out 122 at a rate only marginally quicker, taking 270 balls. Pietersen lashed his runs from just 233 deliveries.
It was an innings that few men in world of cricket past or present could have conceived of playing, let alone executed. His strokeplay was as belligerent as we have come to expect, and yet it was not at the expense of discipline or prudence. In a situation where spinners could at any point rip an unplayable delivery straight past a batsman's defences, Pietersen gave little in the way of hope to the fielding team.
He has etched his place in history by notching a joint-record 22nd Test century for England — he shares the record with Alastair Cook, Geoffrey Boycott, Wally Hammond and Colin Cowdrey — with a reverse-sweep which said plenty about his innovation. The off-spinners bore the brunt of the treatment; Ravi Ashwin was taken for 52 runs from 46 balls, Harbhajan Singh for 37 from 43.
Pragyan Ojha, the man who had twice cleaned him up cheaply in Ahmedabad, the purveyor of left-arm spin which has historically been Pietersen's weakness, was lashed for three sixes, each more devastating than the last. The first sailed over midwicket, shocking Ojha out of his rhythm, The second was a nonchalant loft over extra cover, a shot laden with difficulty but executed with flourishing disdain. The third was a slog-sweep, smashed over the man on the rope, as if to warn the bowler that there was no pitch big enough to contain his vaulting ambition.
KP's biggest trick was as an illusionist, making the pitch look playable when it was far from it. Before he arrived, two wickets had fallen in quick succession; when he left, the last five wickets managed to add just 31 runs without him, while an illustrious Indian top order came and went in a single session.
Yet despite the arrogance of the innings, there was none in his celebration. KP did not charge down the wicket with both arms aloft — he raised his bat, allowed himself a smile, and got back to work. If the intention was to show his contrition over the off-pitch nonsense that added up to a spell on the sidelines this summer, it was a fitting statement, and one that was well received by team-mates who applauded the knock with every bit as much generosity as they had shown Cook.
It would be easy to brand this a new, mature Pietersen, but on the field of play at least, that would be grossly unfair. He has already played two other innings of comparable lustre this year. A 165-ball 151 in Colombo in April where the next best score was Cook's 278-ball trudge to 94 showed he could more than cope with spin after an otherwise disappointing winter. In the summer, his 149 against South Africa represented the first time that England had their opponents on the back foot during a troubled series.
Pietersen and his colleagues may have found themselves at loggerheads in the summer, and there will have been times when both parties contemplated life without one another. But days like these lay bare exactly how much better life is with Pietersen in the set-up, for KP himself, his team-mates, fans and the sport alike.
England may yet contrive not to level this series with victory in Mumbai — stranger things have happened. But Pietersen's knock has got England dreaming again, and some daunting frontiers seem a little less unreal.
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- Alastair Cook
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