Kevin Pietersen, 158, vs Australia, 2005 Ashes
Just how valuable is Kevin Pietersen and the 158 he scored vs Australia in 2005?
The birth of a great team is often traced to a single player. Their legacy might be tough-as-nails leadership or the nurturing of talent. For the England side of 2008-2013, however, that legacy was a change in attitude. And that change was engineered on the last day of the 2005 home summer by arguably their most talented batter in a generation.
Fifteen years ago today, a skunk-haired tyro named Kevin Pietersen blasted his maiden Test hundred, 158 off just 187 deliveries, against Australia at The Oval in the final Test of the 2005 Ashes. That daredevil innings clinched a draw, confirming England’s recapture of the urn for the first time since 1989.
Final Day Drama
The Ashes were not decided until the final day. At lunch, England were five wickets down and only 133 runs ahead. Needing to avoid defeat to win back the urn, the challenge for England and ‘KP’ on day five was actually quite simple. Much like Australia at Manchester two games earlier, England had to bat all day. Pietersen’s task, in effect, was to emulate Ricky Ponting.
But surely, that was inadvisable. At Old Trafford, Ponting had struck 17 boundaries in his match-saving 156. There was no need for that here. This was the kind of thing we normally saw from Australia, not England. If England just blocked, that would have been satisfactory.
But Pietersen didn’t do satisfactory. He did even better. Not only did Pietersen outscore Ponting, his death-defying hundred instilled a new confidence in English cricket. On that final afternoon, he attacked Australia with a barrage of boundaries – 22 in total, including an Ashes-record seven sixes.
Observers were wowed. In Pietersen’ profile as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year, Paul Hayward wrote that “his belligerent and fearless innings at The Oval lit the imagination’s touchpaper way beyond cricket.”
Fearless? Or reckless? Pietersen wasn’t just going off script in the 158 against Australia. He was flirting with dereliction of duty. “Pietersen’s response would have been considered irresponsible in a beer match,” wrote Simon Barnes in 2016, “Had he got out he’d never have been forgiven.”
The varying tone of these two assessments reveals something about those who watched Pietersen in the fledgling days of his career. They were the ones who had catching up to do vis-a-vis Pietersen’s methods at the crease.
An All-Out Approach
The only surprise was that they were so surprised he came out all guns blazing. In his five-Test-long career, Pietersen had always responded positively to adversity. Amidst the gutless surrender in the first game at Lord’s Pietersen stood out with innings of 57 and 64 not out.
To be fair, though, nobody should be criticised too harshly for failing to anticipate the furious hailstorm of boundaries Pietersen unleashed at The Oval. That wasn’t the lot of English cricket. Gutless surrender had been in vogue as recently as the previous Ashes. Firebrand batting wasn’t chic.
In the Channel 4 documentary Ashes 2005: The Greatest Series, Michael Atherton summed up the incredulity of England’s bemusement at their own chances of regaining The Ashes. “Even though they’ve been dominating Australia throughout every game, since Lord’s,” he explains, “it’s almost as though perhaps they can’t quite believe they’re in this position.”
Watch – The 2005 Ashes
At The Oval, Pietersen made his goal the conversion of that dominant position to the norm for English cricket.
The confidence that he instilled in English cricket was instantly recognisable as his own. In the same documentary, Simon Hughes meditates on the psychological impact of Pietersen’s counter-attacking 57 at Lord’s: “he took on the world’s two best bowlers by reputation, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and he hit them for sixes and he hit them around, and he played them as if they were club bowlers. I think that sends a message to the England batting order that ‘these guys aren’t unplayable, we can take them.’”
Lord’s was the opening note of a blossoming disdain for reputations that Pietersen began to enmesh in the England side. That budding arrogance burst into full bloom at The Oval – and it all happened so quickly.
A Change In Gears
Between lunch and drinks, Pietersen added 43 off 32 deliveries. He took four boundaries off Tait, including the one that brought up his hundred in the last over before tea. At the next drinks break, he was batting on 142 off 172 balls, striking at 82.55.
It wasn’t just the speed of the runs. What Pietersen did to Lee, Tait, and Warne was positively emasculating. He hammered the trio for unbelievably vicious sixes, each raising louder and louder roars from the crowd and dragging England closer and closer to a series victory over Australia for the first time in 18 years.
For a while, though, it hadn’t looked like that. At lunch, Pietersen was batting on a relatively modest 35 off 60 balls. He had already been dropped, been struck on the hand and the body, and been worked over by Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, and Brett Lee
Then came the proverbial sliding doors moment.
A Lucky Escape for Pietersen
Truth be told, though, there were enough sliding doors to constitute a train carriage. Or perhaps a train wreck. Pietersen was dropped thrice, made 158, finished off Australia. But undoubtedly, Warne’s soda off Lee triggers the most severe existential anxiety.
Pietersen’s own conviction of his talent would likely have remained unshaken. But others may not have seen it that way. In the Channel 4 documentary, Warne observes that “if we’d have held one of those couple of catches early when he was on nothing at the start of the last Test match, he’d probably have averaged around 30 and people would have been saying ‘is he good enough for Test cricket?’”
Perhaps that’s a slight overreaction. Pietersen had proved at Lord’s that he had the mentality to survive at the very top. His average of 87.33 from 21 ODIs confirmed he had the talent as well.
At the same time, however, Warne’s words highlight just how much control Australia had over the fate of Pietersen’s young career. Warne had 600 Test wickets already. Pietersen had everything to prove.
Luck doesn’t quite explain it. Most observers have grappled with the idea that there was something cosmically inevitable about Pietersen’s innings. There was some larger hand at work here.
Words don’t quite capture this shift of energy in the universe into Pietersen’s bat. How could they? The universe had given him a life. He changed English cricket with it. Words aren’t sufficient.
Perhaps it was merely a proportionate return – karma. At Old Trafford, Pietersen had dropped Warne at mid-wicket and Australia eventually saved the game. The cricketing gods simply ensured Warne paid his debt here.
Pietersen’s own assessment of what happened during his innings also strays into the language of larger cosmic forces. “Fortune favours the brave, and I’m a pretty brave cricketer, I’m a pretty positive cricketer,” he says in the documentary, “and that’s the way I went about my business, and I took the attack to Australia.”
It is tempting to file this as another cocksure KP soundbite. But what if it isn’t? What if, for a moment, we believe that he was sincere? That attacking was the only realistic course for him? And that it didn’t even enter his thought process that he could be any other way?
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A Lone Hand
It would certainly explain a lot. Later in his career, Pietersen was ably supported – and sometimes surpassed – by his colleagues. At The Oval, he was practically alone. Andrew McGlashan’s report for Cricinfo noted that “he continued to lose partners each time a stand threatened to develop.” It had to be KP.
Moreover, it was the first Ashes since 1978-79 that Australia did not once make 400 runs in an innings. Pietersen’s strategy to accumulate as many runs as quickly as possible looks very different in that light. Blocking wouldn’t have helped – Australia could well have made 160 but never 300.
Imagine if England had tried to block, ended up with not-many, and Australia chased it down. It would have been a bigger potential screw-up than Edgbaston.
Australia Torn Apart
It was also a necessary form of psychological warfare. Australia were used to bullying wins out of opponents. But Pietersen just kept responding with counter-offensives. Pace did not work. Pietersen adeptly rose with the ball, depositing the fast bowlers into the stands. Lee was taken for 55 from 48 deliveries, Tait for 22 off 12.
Spin didn’t work either. Warne felt Pietersen’s full venom – four of his seven sixes came off the leg-spinner. He was hit back over his head over both long-off and long-on, was slog-swept over mid-wicket, you name it.
Australia’s fiercest competitor was torn to shreds.
Finally, it was McGrath’s second over with the second new ball that removed Pietersen. The bowler’s fist went up instinctively in triumph as Pietersen’s off-stump was knocked out. The match, however, was long gone. There was less than a session’s worth of play left and England were already 313 ahead. Pietersen had done his job.
The Winner’s Game
Writing about the 2010-11 Ashes, Mark Nicholas observed a pattern to England’s three wins that delivered a series win Down Under for the first time in 24 years. “In those three matches out of five – Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney – England appeared to be playing on a different pitch,” he noted. “Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott batted their team into impregnable positions before Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell led the crushing of Australian minds.”
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) August 1, 2019
The victory, as Nicholas rightly notes, was as much psychological as sporting. When Pietersen was on song, no opponent could stop him and in the 158, Australia had found that out to their cost.
Nicholas’ choice of words is illuminating. He refers to Pietersen’s ‘crushing’ of Australia. There was an imperious tone to KP’s batting. But even more than that, in Pietersen England found somebody who played the winner’s game.
A New Era
It’s important to grasp how much of a change this was for England. The memories of Nasser Hussain’s captaincy were still fresh. Under him, out of necessity though it was, England played unashamedly stifling cricket. They attempted to keep things tight and stay in the game.
But unlike the Hussain team, the England side of ten years later, as Emma John put it Following On, “could thrash you in three days, then repeat the trick a week later”. That team was one of the best sides in the world and actually played like it.
Thanks for having me! 🏏
— Kevin Pietersen🦏 (@KP24) May 10, 2020
It took a while to fully assemble the side around him, but few players embodied the shift in attitude quite like Pietersen. He saw the revolution through to fruition as well. Only Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, and Andrew Strauss from the 2005 team featured alongside Pietersen in the win away in Australia in 2010-11. And only Bell also played in the 2012 series win in India.
In his profile, Hayward wrote that “the 158 may be a landmark Pietersen will never surpass.” There is an echo here of Tony Cozier who, in 1993, wrote of Brian Lara’s 277 at Sydney (coincidentally, also his fifth Test) that “he may never get as close again, but it will be worth watching him try.”
Funnily enough, Pietersen twice made 158 in the 15 months following the Test at The Oval – once against Sri Lanka, once more against Australia. He would go on to make many bigger hundreds. Even match-winning ones.
The point isn’t to criticise Hayward or Cozier. Given how many young talents faded away far too soon, they were even justified in their caution. The point is more that great players constantly surpasses heights that no one believes they could. Making the improbable happen, and then making it happen again, is what makes them great. It’s even magical.
On the final day of the 2005 summer, Pietersen lit up The Oval with that magic.
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