They were calling for his head before the start of the season. Come big series, tough conditions, early wickets, and Kevin Pietersen scored his first home century in three years, going on to beat India to pulp, complete his third double, and set up a bold declaration about 40 minutes before stumps. It was his slowest century, but resuming on 22 overnight he imposed himself on the bowlers throughout the second day.
They didn't think he was Test material before the start of this season. With Zaheer Khan out with a hamstring injury, Praveen Kumar swung his way on to the Lord's honours board through a maiden five-for, a thing of beauty in isolation. His strikes remained a footnote, though, as they couldn't check Pietersen, who hit 42 off the last 17 balls he faced. Also, while Praveen was the only man other than MS Dhoni to look like taking a wicket today, Pietersen received ample support through stands worth 110, 120 and 61 with Ian Bell, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann. India's openers survived the awkward six overs to stumps, but their over-rate could spell more bad news at the end of the match.
The way Pietersen is seen at home and by outsiders is a bit like VVS Laxman in his earlier years. When Laxman struggled to make it to the Indian team, the Australians could never figure out why. While Pietersen might be a bit of an individualist with eccentricities that don't always make him endearing, the rest of the world just can't figure out the scrutiny the English public and media put him through.
On Friday, he dealt with the cricketing scrutiny in a fairly adept manner. While his early strike-rate in the 30s and the 40s might not suggest domination, it was vintage KP, moving about in the crease, dictating terms to the bowlers, and making them bowl where he wanted them to. Ishant Sharma, Man of the Series in the West Indies, suffered the most. Pietersen toyed around with his line and length by walking across and towards him, practically reducing India to a two-man attack. Ishant's general line was so wide that not one of his deliveries to Pietersen was pitched within the stumps. Before tea, he had bowled only two full deliveries: both were edged, one wide of slips, one short of them. Ishant to Pietersen in 32 wicketless overs: 101 deliveries, 75 runs.
Pietersen hardly stood still to a delivery bowled by the seamers. He had tried the same yesterday, but today he brought with him the middle of the bat. A defensive India didn't have a short leg in place, and there was no checking Pietersen's movements across the crease. In scoring the first 50, he hit only three scoring shots to the off side. He flicked through mid-on and midwicket at will throughout the innings.
Praveen kept resisting, though. He did that first by removing the immovable object, Jonathan Trott, with a perfect inswinger at the start of his second spell today. Trott added only 12 to his overnight 58. While bowling to his former IPL captain, Praveen provided the contest of the day. Pietersen kept moving across, Praveen kept bowling the odd leg-side yorker, trying to get him behind his legs. He even called a leg slip in, and Pietersen flicked straight to that man, only for the ball to fall inches short. He was on 49 then. Praveen couldn't go on forever, and after that testing spell of 6-2-7-1, Pietersen resumed his domination.
Harbhajan Singh was good to begin with, getting some dip from round the stumps, but once Pietersen lofted a straighter one over mid-off, that bubble burst too. Two flat, short deliveries followed, and Bell cut them for fours. Almost unnoticed, Bell sped away to 45 off 76, cutting effectively and playing the cover-drive you might want to play on loop on your MP3 player.
Pietersen did come close to getting out to Dhoni soon after lunch, but challenged the caught-behind decision successfully. He then bossed the second new ball, and curbed his own proclivity to play ill-advised shots in the 90s. With a picturesque on-drive off Ishant, he reached his century, leaping high after taking two steps down the pitch, and then pumping his fists.
Praveen made sure Pietersen went back to more circumspection. After two overs of outswingers, he nearly got Bell with the perfect inswinger but for the height. Soon, though, the outswinger would take the edge. Two balls later, another outswinger would kiss Eoin Morgan's inside edge: 270 for 5 looked much more respectable for India than 270 for 3.
Praveen proceeded to bowl a few unplayable deliveries, but Prior counterattacked to good effect. Once Praveen was taken off, the partnership flourished; Prior smacked 71 of the 120. Praveen again threatened to bring India back with an outswinger that took the adventurous Prior's edge. The next ball was another lovely outswinger, trapping Stuart Broad in front.
Pietersen, 145 then, took his hitting - and his disregard for the bowlers - to another level. Ishant was a mere spinner now, without the turn; even Praveen took some clip. From 182 to 202 was but a matter of six deliveries, which included his first six. As the players walked off, Pietersen and Praveen acknowledged each other's efforts. It is incredible that their places in their respective sides were under scrutiny recently.