x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Kevin Pietersen and Michael Clarke are key to the Ashes series

England batsman adds lethal power to a strong home team while Australia have their captain to lean on, writes Osman Samiuddin.

England's Kevin Pietersen bats during day two of the second international cricket Test match between New Zealand and England played at the Basin Reserve in Wellington on March 15, 2013.
England's Kevin Pietersen bats during day two of the second international cricket Test match between New Zealand and England played at the Basin Reserve in Wellington on March 15, 2013.

It says as much as is needed to be said about the respective state of affairs of England and Australia that while the latter really, desperately need Michael Clarke back in their Test side, England's batting will not disintegrate without Kevin Pietersen.

The two men are easily the best batsmen in their side, among the finest of the modern age, and will be back after lengthy, enforced breaks from the international game as the Ashes begins at Nottingham on Wednesday.

Statistically, you might struggle to slip a piece of paper between them: Pietersen, older by a year, with two more Tests than Clarke's 92; Pietersen has 22 hundreds, 7,499 runs and an average of 49.01; Clarke has 23 hundreds, 7,275 runs and an average of 52.33.

For England, Pietersen provides the colour, a ray of sun piercing through the grey cloudlike monotony of a solid but potentially ponderous top order.

Alastair Cook and Jonathon Trott can and have caused plenty of incisive damage to the Australians, and Joe Root promises to be the slightly chirpier opening partner England want for Cook. Lower down, in Ian Bell and Matt Prior, they also have little reason to fret.

But Pietersen is a different animal altogether. He is the man who makes this batting order truly dangerous, the one who can take a five-day game and turn it on one two-hour session.

In his enforced three-month absence from a knee injury, England have not ostensibly suffered.

They have, in fact, done well, beating New Zealand in a short one-day series away, beating them in a Test series at home comfortably and finishing runners-up at the Champions Trophy.

But as Jimmy Anderson acknowledged over the weekend, Pietersen makes England a better side.

"We're definitely a better team for Kevin's inclusion," Anderson said. "He's just an extraordinary player. There's not really any down side at the minute. We saw it this week in the match at Chelmsford. I know he only got 49, but it just seemed far too easy for him. He seemed in great form. An in-form Kevin Pietersen is vital to our team going forward."

That the words came from Anderson is significant. The paceman was thought to be one of the players in the dressing room not entirely happy with Pietersen's attitude in the run-up to his ouster from the team last summer during the home series with South Africa.

Pietersen eventually resolved his differences with the England board and was "reintegrated" to the side in India under Cook's captaincy, a triumphant return that again showcased his unique genius. For the moment, affairs in the dressing room seem under control.

"We had a really good week at Essex," Anderson said. "The dressing room was relaxed when it could be and switched on when it needed to be. But generally there is a really relaxed feel in the camp and real excitement of what is about to come."

In stark contrast, Australia need Clarke's experience and batting pedigree now more than ever. He missed the Champions Trophy due to a recurrence of a long-standing back condition but unlike England, Australia's batting could do with some simple, no-nonsense stability.

Any order they choose for the first Test will look a little green in terms of Test experience, and success.

One of the persisting problems has been the inability of men such as Shane Watson, David Warner, Ed Cowan and Phil Hughes to convert scores into hundreds.

Since March 2010, of the 62 times Australia's top four has gone past 50 in Tests, only 10 have been converted into hundreds. England's top four have made 36 hundreds in the same period (out of 86 scores of 50-plus).

Clarke's value is doubly clear in this regard. Of the 10 hundreds Australia have made in the last year, he has made four and Michael Hussey made another three, which means everyone else has added just three. And Hussey is now retired.

Clarke is not as explosive as Pietersen but he has, since becoming captain, discovered a ruthlessness in batting long and batting big that is often beyond Pietersen.

His average century score - at 195 - is 40 more than Pietersen's (though it has been boosted by a recent run of one triple and three doubles in the last 18 months).

As captain he is even more vital. His leadership off the field has come under question recently as Australia have lurched from one disciplinary scrape to another.

He has been relieved of selection duties and has a new coach to work with now, but on the field, his Test captaincy is sharper and more astute than any other in international cricket.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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