The last time Kevin Pietersen came to India in 2008 as part of an English Test side, he was also the captain. Over the past few months, as columnist after columnist discussed his appalling behaviour during the South Africa series, the facts surrounding his ouster from the captaincy were rarely aired.
Whatever be his differences with Peter Moores, then coach of the team, the manner in which Pietersen was cast adrift was nothing short of disgraceful.
In the furore that followed, it was often forgotten just how well Pietersen had led the side in India. With the Test leg taking place mere weeks after the Mumbai terror attacks – most Indians did not expect England to return – many of the questions Pietersen faced at press conferences dealt with far more than just sport.
He acquitted himself wonderfully, saying the right things and generally doing his best to ensure that the team he led was the most popular English one to visit India.
On the field, England lost a Test and drew the other. The loss came at Chennai, in a game that England controlled for three and a half days. When Pietersen declared soon after tea on the fourth afternoon, India needed 387 to win. At that point in time, no team had scored more than 276 to win a Test in India.
A lot has been said and written since of how naive Pietersen’s captaincy was. But you could be a combination of Mike Brearley and Ian Chappell, and it still would not help if your frontline bowlers deliver filth. That was exactly what Steve Harmison and company did that evening.
They bowled the wrong length to Virender Sehwag, and even worse, gave him room to free his arms and drive and cut as he pleased. It was a lesson in how not to bowl to him. By the time Sehwag was dismissed leg before to Graeme Swann, he had smashed 83 from 68 balls, and India were careering along at five an over.
So rapid was the progress that they needed just 256 on the final day.
Harmison was a busted flush by then. James Anderson was not a patch on the bowler he has since become. Monty Panesar and Swann could not exert any consistent pressure on a fifth-day pitch, and Andrew Flintoff, running in on willpower and little else, was the only one to give the Indian batsmen cause for alarm.
To make Pietersen the scapegoat for India’s record-breaking chase was to ignore bowling figures that told a very sorry tale.
Last week, when he was added to England’s Test squad as a 17th member, Pietersen tweeted: “BOOOOOOOOM!! The happiest days of my career have been playing cricket for ENG. Long may that continue! Thanks everyone for your kind words.”
His teammates should have been as delighted. With Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood now retired, Alastair Cook and Pietersen are the only ones in the squad with a Test century in India on their resume.
Ian Bell averages 20 from his five Tests in India, while Jonny Bairstow had a horror tour during the one-day series last year.
Strauss scored a century in Mumbai in 2006, and had one in each innings of the Chennai game (2008). With him gone, India’s slow bowlers would have been rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of facing a line-up that lacked Pietersen as well.
Pietersen’s addition to the squad not only levels the playing field a little, but also makes India wary of producing square turners.
The Swann factor will not worry India unduly, but they will be well aware of how Pietersen can transform a game in a session or two.
At the P Sara Oval in Colombo last April, in a match where other batsmen scored at three an over or less, Pietersen thumped 151 from 165 balls before returning to seal the win with 42 from just 28.
The bigger question of course is how Pietersen, currently in South Africa trying to help the Delhi Daredevils advance to the final stages of the Champions League Twenty20, is welcomed by his teammates.
Part of his enchantment with the Indian Premier League has to do with how he has been treated as a big cheese in the dressing rooms. The England camp has not always seemed as welcoming.
In an Indian landscape that encourages stars and larger-than-life figures, Pietersen has never needed to be just one of the lads.
When he returns to the Flower-and-Cook fold next week, you sense that that will be his greatest challenge.
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