Kevin Pietersen stands back from the crease, relaxed but aware, careless but careful, distanced but involved. In his preball routine, he’s almost never still. He readjusts his helmet grill, fidgets with his gloves, flexes his legs, straightens a pad, touches his thigh guard, shuffles his upper body and irritably twitches his mouth.
His stance is a thing of power: an enormously wide base, legs flexed, bat held with technical aplomb over off stump. After the buzz and agitated movement of his preparation, he is suddenly still. His head is balanced, his eyes are level, he is coiled and ready to strike.
As the bowler approaches the crease Pietersen’s trigger movement kicks in. His back foot shuffles across the stumps first, then his front foot follows, he’s on the move again.
The leitmotiv of a Pietersen inning is the histrionics his hubris engenders. The first ball, a wide delivery from Harris, is flashed at and missed. The second ball is similar and Pietersen shapes to play the same shot again, but he decides against it and pulls his bat inside the line extravagantly. The third ball is a touch fuller.
Pietersen strides confidently forward, his hands go hard at the ball, which ricochets off his inside edge and squirts uncomfortably away to a close catcher on the leg side. His fourth ball is a good ball—a yorker. Pietersen jams his bat down onto it and squeezes it away for a single to fine leg.
Off the mark. Out of the blocks. He’s on his way.
This is the most dangerous phase of a Kevin Pietersen inning. Here, he must temper his desire to score with application and concentration. His footwork is overly pugnacious, his hands are well in front of his body and his wrists are firm. He has been out 56 times between one and 20 in his Test career.
After getting off the mark, Pietersen scores off just three of the following 18 balls he faces. He is circumspect, but visibly restless. He plays shots at 15 of those 18 balls, most of which are flying harmlessly outside, off stump, from the round-the-wicket angle of left-armer Mitchell Starc. He doesn’t like being bowled to. He likes to hit boundaries. Australia are dangling the carrot.
One delivery from Starc is unusually wide, Pietersen’s feet are rooted to the spot, but he slashes hard at the ball that flies millimeters away from the edge. Sport’s fine margins. With the match situation as it is, you can’t help but see the shot as, in the words of David Bowie, "putting out fire with gasoline." But Pietersen’s genius has its own logic.
He doesn’t chastise himself for attempting to hit the ball for four. Instead, he irritably shadow-plays the same shot again, twice—only more aggressively. It is as if he is straining against an invisible set of chains holding him back, reigning him in.
In Starc’s following over, two consecutive balls are dropped short. Big mistake. Pietersen’s brutal and visceral reaction—to even the slightest hint of bowling ineptitude—is domination. He stands tall, his weight lurches back and then powers forward. His wrists roll, and the ball is sent skimming across the outfield. Consecutive boundaries. The invisible chains are left broken at his ankles.
It seems that practice does indeed make perfect. Pietersen’s irritated rehearsals bear fruition as another full, wide delivery from Starc is slapped through the cover point region for his fourth boundary.
It seems as if his pulse has settled. Runs come with ease, albeit not ferocity. He plays with sagacity and is mild-mannered and steady. Dot. Two. Dot. One. Dot. One. Dot. Dot. Two. The pattern continues.
Nathan Lyon is introduced into the attack. He bowls defensively around the wicket, into Pietersen’s legs. Australia’s lead is still above 400. This is the Pietersen Effect.
Lyon comes back over the wicket. The angle is changed. Pietersen has more room and disregards there is more risk. He bludgeons one four, before smiting two thunderous sixes off consecutive balls. One over long-on, one over long-off to pass 50 in a manner befitting of the individual.
Boundaries don’t flow after reaching the landmark. He has to battle for his runs. Australia are bowling with discipline, and their fields are restrictive. However, the pitch almost appears to be getting flatter as time progresses, creating the illusion that the bowlers' very spikes are rolling it.
It has been said that "fortune favors the brave." Pietersen skips aggressively down the wicket towards Shane Watson and is rapped on the pads. Australia have their appeal turned down, and, perhaps, put off by Pietersen’s distance down the wicket opt not to review. Had they done so, Pietersen would’ve been given out.
The match is now levelling, and whilst Pietersen is at the crease, England’s hopes of getting within touching distance of Australia’s first innings total remain high.
Pietersen’s engine whirrs as he approaches his century. His batting dynamo throbbing. You double take as he, not Ian Bell, guides a four through third man. He then flicks a straight ball through mid-wicket for four to move into the 90s. A shot that made this innings his: Kevin Pietersen™
The 100 arrives with a shot of breathtaking eclat. An ugly wide ball from Starc is ferociously uppercut over point and hurtles to the boundary—100 not out.
He removes his helmet, and "The Aussie Slayer" is given a human face. He outstretches his arms in celebration, grinning from ear to ear, and basking in the ovation he receives. The power and the glory of Ashes success.
He moves merrily onwards after reaching his century. Two boundaries carry him to 113. However, Pietersen’s strength is also his weakness. He pushes hard at a straight ball from Starc and is hit on the pads. Australia's fielders go up, as does the umpire's finger. Although "Hot Spot" did appear to show a small edge, his review fails to save him.
Pietersen arrived at the crease with England 64-3, and 113 of his own runs later, departed with England, 280-7.
England’s late mini collapse has ensured that this match is still very much alive. However, with poor weather forecasted and just two days remaining, the home side will still feel relatively confident of saving the Test.
If they do so, Pietersen's century may well be romantically looked back upon as the innings that retained the Ashes for England. But make no mistake, there is still plenty of work to be done.