It isn't easy being Kevin Pietersen.
Ever since the South African-origin cricketer first donned the England flannels back in 2004, he has always been in the headlines. His stupendous talent, which made him England's highest run-scorer across all formats in an international career that spanned less than a decade, ensured that a majority of those headlines were positive. Unfortunately for him, only the negative ones stuck.
In February, after scoring 13,797 runs for England across all formats, Pietersen, aged 33, was dropped from the national squad by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in a unanimous decision. This was in spite of Pietersen being England's leading run-scorer in an otherwise humiliating Ashes whitewash in the Australian summer.
This was also a year after Pietersen was successfully reintegrated into the England squad following a text-message controversy in 2012 that had threatened to end his international career. A second reintegration looks unlikely.
As the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League began earlier this month, Pietersen, bought by the Delhi Daredevils for $1.5 million and later named skipper, would have known that he would still continue to hog the headlines.
An injury to his hand kept him out of Delhi's opening three matches. The team did not quite perform up to expectations, losing two of the games. As soon as Pietersen announced that he hoped to be fit for the fourth game (per ESPNcricinfo), against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, it was evident that all the spotlight and buildup would again be focused on him.
Pietersen would have wanted to erase memories of the last three months by having a good first outing as an out-and-out franchise player. However, three months of relative inertia evidently isn't that easy to shake off, even for a player of his calibre.
On Friday, when he strode out to bat at No. 3, with Delhi needing 86 runs from 52 deliveries, the stage was set for a much-awaited Pietersen masterclass. Unfortunately for him and his well-wishers, it wasn't to be.
Pietersen struggled to judge the line and turn of leggie Karan Sharma in the first four deliveries he faced, before eventually getting off the mark with a single in the bowler's next over.
Hyderabad's other leg-spinner, Amit Mishra, then had some fun with Pietersen as well, as the Englishman struggled to three runs from 10 deliveries. It took a couple more singles off Darren Sammy before Pietersen finally managed to clear the rope, hauling the medium-pacer for a huge six.
In the next over, Pietersen squared up to one of the world's best bowlers, Dale Steyn, and elegantly swiped a fullish delivery past point and wide of the sweeper for four more.
At this point, Delhi needed 51 more from 22 balls, which would have been within an in-form Pietersen's range. However, it would only turn out to be a false start as he was caught in the deep just three balls later, after making 16 from 17 balls—a crime, considering the required rate.
Pietersen's scratchy innings, coupled with what was Delhi's third loss in four matches, is bound to gather more negative press and raise questions over his confidence, form and, more importantly, his captaincy.
Considering Delhi were chasing a steep total and the fact that it was Pietersen's first game in three months, should he have let Jean-Paul Duminy, who had two half-centuries to his name in the tournament already, in to bat before him?
In the end, Duminy only came in at No. 5 with just 19 deliveries remaining, of which he ended up facing just seven, and still managed to score 20. What if Duminy had come in earlier? Would Delhi have scored the four runs that they eventually fell short of?
The Daredevils have already played four of their 14 games this season, winning just the one match against the Kolkata Knight Riders. Pietersen would have ideally hoped for a couple more games to settle in and get into groove, but he would find that his team cannot afford it as things stand.
However, Delhi's next two matches are against the Mumbai Indians and the Rajasthan Royals—two teams who have also struggled in the tournament so far. These two matches are crucial for Pietersen in terms of finding form, or else the Delhi think tank would probably be forced to change their approach.
The bright side for the Daredevils following Friday's game was that they finally seem to have gotten their batting combination right.
Quinton de Kock (48 off 30), who came in for Mayank Agarwal, again proved what a valuable player he is at the top of the order, following a successful last 12 months. Murali Vijay (52 off 40), the other opener, also found form. Dinesh Karthik and Duminy have already been among the runs, which leaves only Pietersen and Manoj Tiwary still left to show up.
Before this game, Pietersen's average in 21 IPL matches was 42.26. A quick return to form isn't beyond his capabilities, given his colourful and prolific career.
An in-form Pietersen could do wonders for this Delhi side, which has long underperformed and would be eager to better their record. They would, however, hope to avoid a situation where they are forced to drop their own skipper.
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