Managing Editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Spring 2017 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has opted for Simon Barnes’s piece on KP’s 2005 innings of rare genius.
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I attended every day of the 2005 Oval Test match and I’m pretty sure many of the moments will live with me forever. But KP’s innings, especially the post-lunch period, was the stand-out. I had never, I have never, experienced a sporting performance that meant quite so much, that provoked such contrasting emotions. Pietersen was brilliant, thoughtless, brutal, foolhardy and courageous. And Simon captures the innings and the match superbly, as you knew he would.
Matt Thacker, March 2017
THE OVAL BALL-GAME
Simon Barnes remembers Pietersen’s perfect storm
The Oval is the last chapter, the denouement, the scene in the library when you find out who did it. It’s not the scene where the ghost and the prince meet, it’s the one where everyone ends in mincemeat. It’s the conclusion, the end, finis – and so you walk back out into the Harleyford Road, as dismal a street as exists in all London, crying or laughing or wagging your head in puzzlement that the world can be the way it is.
The Oval is the last Test, the place where triumph and disaster reveal themselves and don’t feel even remotely similar. It’s the place where the tyro captain Nasser Hussain was booed a few months before he changed the England cricket team forever; it’s the place where David Gower raised a replica of the Ashes urn and observed with the mordant irony that defined him: “The West Indians will be quaking in their boots.”
The Oval is where Frodo dropped the ring of power into the cracks of doom. It’s where the princess marries the prince, but it’s also where the prince and the princess die after a hideous misunderstanding. The Oval is where Gulliver returned from his last voyage; The Oval is Ithaca, where Odysseus returned after his 20-year absence; The Oval is the pit of hell where Dante (spoiler alert) meets Judas; The Oval is Paradise in which all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
If you seek humiliation, go to The Oval. If you seek gloating triumphalism, go to The Oval. The Oval is also the place of damp squibs, of bathos, of the dreary inevitability of defeat and the dangerous joys of rubbing the opposition’s nose in it. By being last, The Oval is forever fated to bring us the best Test of the summer or the worst. The middle way is not The Oval way.
At The Oval, summer’s lease is foreclosed. Sometimes events here lead to desperate convolutions of the plot, for it is the place of purposes mistook, accidental judgments and casual dismissals of those that had strived so hard for so long. At The Oval many a captain has led his side for the last time and hit the Harleyford Road wondering what more he could have done. Some are fired for the faults in themselves, some for faults of others, most because the opposition was just too mighty.
At The Oval the clouds gather beyond the gas-holders while you watch and wonder if it will all end well or if it will all end badly – knowing that either resolution will seem utterly inevitable when it’s all over, as if no other result had been possible since the day the teams got together for the first Test at a ground less heavy with the weight of endings.
Come with me, then, to The Oval. Let us walk from Vauxhall Station, rubbing shoulders with the many through the tunnel beneath the tracks, crossing onto the Harleyford Road by way of that lethal set of traffic lights – surely designed to trap unwary cricket followers – and then let us walk with the fearful hopeful thousands towards that gloriously unlovely ground, in the shadows of which you still expect the Sweeney to swoop, a ghost from the depressed 1970s, in their dog-shit-coloured Granada to arrest you for a blagging.
It is 12 September 2005. The day, the summer – it seemed our entire lives – were all held in the most delicate balance. Which way would things fall? Would it be triumph? Disaster? Or the dampest of damp squibs? No one could guess that it would be all three, and a great deal more besides.
Look at the sky: overcast. Woolly weather, each punter with a waterproof or brolly packed safe. The sort of day when you just hope for a good six hours of action. At least, you do normally. On this day every English person would have been content with an ark-building downpour, or for six hours watching the umpires check their light meters.
Most readers will remember the context. England were leading Australia 2-1. As this was The Oval, you will gather that this was the final match of the series. Win or draw, England take the series and the Ashes. Lose and Australia level the series and retain the Ashes. England had not won an Ashes series for 18 years: years in which humiliation piled on humiliation, and gallows humour lost all its ability to protect sore places. The summer had begun with the glorious hope that England might give the Aussies a game at last – but now, with victory in England’s grasp, every English person there was hag-ridden by the dreadful fear that the boys would blow it at the last. And that would be worse, far worse, than the usual 5-0 defeat.
The match had begun alright. England batted and made 373, with Andrew Strauss scoring 129 and Andrew Flintoff 72. That flashy South African import Kevin Pietersen got 14. Always said he was no good. Shane Warne bowled him, in the course of taking 6 for 122. Australia replied and were 185 before the first wicket fell. Flintoff then resumed his role of hero and took five wickets, while Matthew Hoggard polished off the innings with four wickets for four runs. Thrust and parry, parry-riposte, riposte and counter-riposte: the whole series had been full of it.
As we took our seats on that last day England were 34 for 1. All – all! – they had to do was to bat for 98 overs, but by lunch this plan was in tatters. England were 127 for 5. There was a ghastly inevitability about it all. It seemed that England dared not win. They more or less insisted on losing because the habit of capitulation to Australia was so deeply engrained. Against Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne together, what could anyone do but lose? England didn’t need sledging to achieve mental disintegration: that was just one more pint of bat’s blood in the witch’s brew of defeatism.
McGrath! Returning after three matches out, having foolishly stepped on a cricket ball on the outfield at Edgbaston while playing touch rugby, of all things. But now he was back and formidable: two wickets in two balls and, on the hat-trick ball, an appeal they must have heard from the top of the London Eye.
It was the sound of the hound of the Baskervilles calling for its prey, yet Billy Bowden, the umpire, was superbly unmoved. He correctly ruled that the ball had looped off Pietersen’s shoulder. Not that Pietersen looked like staying out there much longer. He was like a cat in an adage. The next over, letting I dare not wait upon I would, he was out to Warne – no! Matthew Hayden dropped it, a tough one, but hell, ain’t they all?
Brett Lee was bowling now. He was at his fastest that day, frighteningly quick. He found Pietersen’s edge and the chance fizzed face-high to Warne at first slip. It was a sitter, and Warne was as sound a first slip as they make ’em: reverse the hands, fingers up, those big paws spreading like a landing-net to bring the big fish home. Victory! But no. Not yet. Impossibly, unbelievably, unreasonably, Warne dropped it.
He made some kind of amends by taking the wickets of Flintoff (oh God!) and Marcus Trescothick. At lunch England were a beaten side and Pietersen – still in, just – looked a beaten man. He had been given a roasting by Lee. He was bruised, battered and at his wits’ end, while Paul Collingwood looked like a cricketer who had rightly been twelfth man for the entire series. Surely it was all over – unless the weather came to England’s aid. Blow winds and crack your cheeks! You cataracts and hurricanes spout! But the weather horribly insisted on staying playable.
There are many versions of what happened next – of what happened during the lunch interval between the England captain, Michael Vaughan and Pietersen. Certainly lunch was the crucial session of that epochal day, though not for what was eaten. What happened in the pavvy? Who said what to whom? I asked Vaughan; the first voice is Pietersen:
“Skip, what do you want me to do?” He looked at me in a very sheepish way. He had been battered by the short stuff before lunch and was a little rattled. I took a breath and asked him two very simple questions: “Kev, what sort of cricket have we played all series? When do you play your best?”
He paused and then just said: “I like to attack.”
So I just laughed and said, “There you go. You go out after lunch and try and take them on. If Brett bounces you again you must attack it and try and score. One hour of you and the Ashes are ours… and by the way… fuckin’ enjoy it!”
What happened next would have been astonishing in any context. In the context of this summer – this summer of all summers – it beggared belief. It was as if reality itself had been suspended: as if we had been transported to the land where dreams come true, but in a form you would never have had the courage to imagine.
Pietersen acted on Vaughan’s words not wisely but too well. It didn’t look like a passage of normal sport, not at all. It looked like an out-of-body experience, in which Pietersen was looking down from a height at his own wild and extravagant movements far below. I have attended a thousand of the world’s greatest sporting moments and I don’t recall another in which I literally found it hard to believe what I was witnessing.
Perhaps you have never encountered the great law of sport known as Barnes’s Hierarchy. It states that the lowest level at which we appreciate sport is partisanship. One level up is drama, and at the summit we respond to pure excellence. Well, here were all three at once. For England partisans this was a day that had been 18 years in the waiting. For us all, it was the drama of a great batsman taking on a great fast bowler at the peak of his powers. Beyond that – beyond almost anything – we had the impossible excellence of one truly great performance trumped by another still greater.
Essentially, the battle for the Ashes came down to 13 balls from Lee, from which Pietersen scored 35 runs. But this was no mad slugfest. Pietersen attacked Lee and Shaun Tait, but he mostly defended against McGrath and Warne. In the afternoon he was batting at 228 per 100 balls against Lee and Tait, and at 32 against McGrath and Warne. And there was Colly earning his MBE with an innings of 10 in 72 minutes. After that, Ashley Giles scored 59.
Sometime after tea it was all over. There wasn’t a tipping-point, nothing so sudden or decisive. It was just a slowly hardening realisation that England, that Pietersen, had done enough, that there was not enough time for Australia to get the runs, that the total had spiralled beyond reach, that the match could now only be drawn, that England had won the Ashes.
Pietersen was out for 158 with seven sixes, and it would have been a fine innings in nothing-to-lose circumstances. But this was an everything-to-lose situation. A tactic that looked like recklessness turned out to be perfect wisdom. Certainly it won the day. Had Pietersen been out top-edging the first of those God-of-thunder hook shots we’d have had some terrible things to say about him. But he didn’t.
In the event we praised his audacity. But beyond the courage to go for it was the courage to connect. The execution itself was the finest thing of all: the way those immense strikes – outrageous in any circumstances, unimaginable in these, as Wisden pronounced – were not only attempted but carried through successfully. The speed of the ball, the weight of the occasion, the burden of responsibility: all these things that should have inhibited became inspiration.
Fire up the laptop and let me write!
But first the bathos. First the quasi-religious ritual, in which Australia came out to bat their fourth innings in failing light, the Ashes already lost in everything save the handshake and the umpires’ blessing. Steve Harmison sent four balls down at Justin Langer before the umpires took the players off for bad light. Then, 16 minutes later, the umpires came out again – and removed the bails.
Two middle-aged gentlemen taking four small pieces of lathe-turned wood from six wooden stakes. The entire world was reduced to a single cheer. The Oval – the last Test, the last post, the last trump, the end of act five, the epilogue, thank you, farewell, goodnight ladies, goodnight sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight, for our revels now are ended.
Issue 17 of The Nightwatchman, available in both print and digital formats.
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