Kevin Pietersen may have complained that “it isn’t easy being me” in the England dressing room, but sometimes it looks preposterously easy to be him on the pitch. Pietersen took another step in his “rehabilitation” by plundering a century of dominance and disdain on the first day of England’s warm-up match against Haryana.
In truth, there were never many doubts about Pietersen’s on-field contributions to the England cause. He was dropped, after all, having just scored one of the best centuries of his Test career. The problems were more off the pitch. But this innings, as facile as it was, at least showed that Pietersen is in the form and, perhaps more importantly, the frame of mind, to flourish in the Test series ahead. Only time will tell if the cracks in the dressing room are to reappear.
Yet, like preparing to wrestle a tiger by feeding a kitten, the first day of this warm-up match may prove of little value to England ahead of the Test series against India. On a green pitch and against an unusually modest attack, England’s top-order – Pietersen in particular – plundered runs with ease. Suffice it to say, the most uncomfortable moment any England batsman experienced was when Ian Bell’s chair broke as he was waiting to bat.
But these runs will have brought hollow pleasure to England. While the team management thought they had ensured adequate preparation in agreeing three warm-up games ahead of the first Test, India had other ideas. By providing England with surfaces quite different to those anticipated in the Test series and with opposition some way below international standard, they are, arguably, denying their opposition any meaningful practise. It is a tactic that bears the hallmark of Duncan Fletcher.
While some may bridle at such an approach, it will remain legitimate until the precise details of these warm-up games – the nature of pitches and the quality of opposition – is contractually agreed in advance. At present, while the hospitality and facilities extended to England have been faultless, there is a faint echo of Cambridge United under John Beck, master of gamesmanship, in the Indian approach. It is not meant as a criticism.
The Sardar Patel B Ground in Motera is not a classically beautiful venue. Faintly reminiscent of Garon Park in Southend, but with red kites instead of seagulls, it is a venue most unlikely to be painted by Jocelyn Galsworthy. For much of the day, it seemed the circling kites looked as if they wanted to feast on the bowling, too.
Still, the day was not completely wasted. Pietersen proved his form and frame of mind, Alastair Cook fell three short of what would have been the softest century of his first-class career and Nick Compton compiled a sound half-century that has cemented his position in the team for the first Test. Bell and Jonathan Trott also enjoyed decent time at the crease. All will, at least, go into the Test series having enjoyed match practise in the heat. It is, after all, surely better to score runs against modest opposition than fail to score them.
There was, perhaps, just one warning sign for England. Amit Mishra, the one quality spinner England have faced on the tour to date, only introduced himself into the attack in the 51st over of the innings and struck almost immediately. He beat Nick Compton, prodding forward, with his seventh delivery and, in his sixth over trapped the previously untroubled Trott leg before as he missed a sweep. All rather familiar.
Mishra apart, there was little here to worry England. One of the opening bowlers, Sanjay Budhwar, is a left arm seamer who has not played a first-class game for two years, while the other, Amit Karamvir, was playing just his fourth first-class match. Neither are likely to follow in the footsteps of Haryana’s most famous son, Kapil Dev, and go on to represent India. England will not face many bowlers like Chanderpal Saini, a seamer with the physical presence of Janette Krankie, in international cricket, either.
Cook, in particular, stood out. Usually content to pick up his runs from nudges and nurdles, here he struck 18 fours, most of them from glorious drives between extra cover and mid-off. It perhaps says more about the bowling than Cook’s form that there were times in this innings when he bore passing resemblance to David Gower. Only a waft off a wide delivery denied him the 40th first-class century of his career.
Compton was less eye-catching but admirably sound. Quick to skip down the pitch to the spinners, he defended positively but showed a willingness to attack when appropriate and brought up his half-century from 88 balls with a pleasing lofted drive for six off Jayant Yadav’s off spin. He survived one edge, on 33, but generally looked to have the technique and temperament to prosper in Test cricket. But much sterner tests await.
Bell was, perhaps, the one established batsman in the line-up under just a little bit of pressure. While his first scoring shot, an attempted loft over mid-on, was not completely convincing, he soon found form. Twice he danced down the wicket and drove Mishra for straight sixes and, though he struggled to find his most fluent timing, he became the third man of the day to bring up his half-century with a six over mid-off.
And then there was Pietersen. Asking him to bat against this attack was like asking Noam Chomsky to recite his two-times table. While he was, in theory, dropped on 42 to a sharp caught and bowled chance, Yadav may consider himself fortunate to still have his hand. Pietersen drove, swept, ramped and cut with ease and power that suggests his form and motivation are strong. He looked bored some time before reaching his century, from 86 balls with 14 fours and three sixes, with his second 50 occupying just 32 balls. He was badly missed on 85 by Sachin Rana on the mid-wicket boundary and retired, rehabilitated and ready for the struggle ahead.