Kevin Pietersen: A Solution to England’s Opening Problems?

Puzzlingly, Australia’s captain Michael Clarke has told members of the media that Kevin Pietersen was “scoring enough runs” to get into the England side, and that he hoped he would not feature in this summer’s Ashes series.

Whether 293 runs in the Big Bash for Melbourne Stars – the side for whom Clarke has recently signed – over the winter and 170 more in a three-day friendly with Oxford MCCU last week can be considered a return high enough for England selection is highly contentious, but ‘KP’ has undeniably been playing well in the past six months.

Of course, Clarke was never likely to speak out against his new team-mate, and giving his views on his non-selection may be an attempt to unsettle the England side ahead of this summer’s Test matches, but he is by no means the first important figure in the game to advocate a return for Pietersen, and with every run he scores for Surrey, that opinion will gather credibility.

However, one of the points that has been addressed remarkably sparingly is where the 34-year-old might fit into the Test side.

Having spent the majority of his career batting in the middle order – of his 181 Test innings, he batted at number four in 139 of them and at number five in a further 37 – most of his fans would presumably support his inclusion in the side in a similar position were he to return.

Here lies the obvious problem; England’s middle order is the most stable part of the side.

Since Pietersen’s most recent Test appearance, at Sydney in the final game of the 2013/14 Ashes series, England’s numbers three, four and five have remained the same throughout, with Gary Ballance, Joe Root and Ian Bell filling the positions.

Their batting records in that period have been fantastic; Ballance has 836 runs at an average of 69.7, Bell has 588 at 45.2, and Root has made a gargantuan 919 runs at 91.9.

Meanwhile, since 2012, Pietersen has a Test average of 38.7, and hit four hundreds in that period, the same number that Ballance has managed in his nine-match career.

It seems, therefore, that any ambitions Pietersen may have of returning to the middle order are futile, as only injury would prevent those three batsmen lining up against Australia at the SWALEC Stadium on 8th July.

Where, in that case, might the Pietermaritzburg-born batsman fit into the team? It seems improbable that the England management would be willing to move Joe Root around in the batting order to accommodate Pietersen, given their unsuccessful experiences of having done so in the past, and with the five-bowler strategy being favoured at the moment, there is no room for him at number six ahead of Ben Stokes or Moeen Ali.

As a result, the only realistic chance Pietersen has of getting back into the side seems to be, believe it or not, as an opening batsman.

There are obvious drawbacks with this theory. Pietersen has only opened the batting once in his Test career, and that was as part of an attempt to chase down a target of 253 in 39 overs against South Africa at Headingley in 2012; the move did not go to plan, as having bludgeoned three boundaries, he was caught at mid-on for twelve from just eight deliveries.

However, opening the batting is by no means an alien concept for ‘KP’. He has done so twelve times in One-Day International cricket, and his success as a T20 freelance player has been opening the batting.

Of course, opening in a one-day game and in a Test Match are completely different disciplines. but that he has some experience of walking out at the start of an innings and having to assess conditions is useful.

Surrey would also not find it hard to accommodate him at the top of the order. Their opening partnership of Rory Burns and Zafar Ansari is useful, but by no means inseparable, and with Gary Wilson, Jason Roy, Steve Davies, Kumar Sangakkara, and Vikram Solanki all competing for spots in the middle-order, it may even be a better side if one of the regular opening batsmen is left out in favour of Pietersen.

Opening for Surrey would be a clear signal of his intentions, and with Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook floundering in the Caribbean, pressure on the pair to perform would increase. Also, Adam Lyth’s non-selection despite heavily outscoring Trott in last year’s County Championship suggests that perhaps he will not be making his debut unless Trott continues to fail; an in-form Pietersen scoring runs at the top of the order may be able to overtake him in the queue to open the batting.

Of course, this is highly speculative; Pietersen has at no point signalled any intent to open the batting, and he may still think that he has a strong chance of making the Test side ahead of Ballance, Bell or Root.

However, the possibility of him regaining his place by changing his position in the order is surely worth the risk?