The visitors won by an innings at The Oval, with Dale Steyn taking five for 56 in the second innings. At Headingley, facing a South Africa total of 419, Pietersen played one of the finest innings of his career, 149 off just 214 balls. One stroke exemplified his dominance. Steyn, then in his prime, dropped one short. Pietersen barely moved from his stance while swatting the ball through midwicket for four.
Contemptuous doesn’t even begin to describe it. Imperious. Regal. Dismissive. But the highlight of the footage is not the shot itself. It’s the sight of an incredulous Steyn walking back to his bowling mark, muttering. The body language is telling. It is like he is asking himself: “How do I bowl to this bloke?”
Three of the hundreds Pietersen made that year, including the Headingley one, may never be bettered by an England batsman. At the P Sara Oval in Colombo that April, on a pitch where the average run rate was well below three, he smashed 151 off 165 balls, with 16 fours and six sixes. Then, with England chasing 94 for a series-leveling win, he came out and thumped 42 off 28.
At the end of the year, England were in India. They lost the first Test in Ahmedabad, and Cheteshwar Pujara’s doughty century then took India to 327 on a raging turner in Mumbai. Expert commentators and veteran journalists alike reckoned England would struggle to get anywhere close to that total, with R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha having the ball on a string.
When Pietersen arrived at the crease, England had eked out 68 for two in 34 overs. By the time, he was sixth out for 186 (233 balls), they had added a further 314 at four an over. Pietersen’s drives, cuts, flicks, sweeps and reverse sweeps utterly destroyed the bowlers’ confidence, and England went on to win both the Test and the series.
Yet, less than 14 months later, he had played his last Test for England, tallying three and six in Sydney as England lost the Ashes 5-0 for the second time in seven years. He was a convenient scapegoat, especially given his behavior during the series loss against South Africa in 2012. His description of Andrew Strauss, his then captain, as a "doos" [an extremely unflattering Afrikaans word] in a text message sent to the South African camp ensured that his relationship with the rest of the dressing room was a tenuous one. Though a few players stuck up for him after he was axed, there was no mutinous mood over the jettisoning of England’s most captivating batsman.
Kevin Pietersen destroying the Aussies scoring a massive 227 in the Ashes second Test in 2010/11.— Cricket on BT Sport (@btsportcricket) March 17, 2018
Unbelievable hitting from an extraordinary batsmen.
Happy retirement @KP24, well played pic.twitter.com/p20oE45V3r
That tended to be a theme wherever he played. When he left South Africa as a young man, convinced that the transformation policies would stymie his progress, the general response was ‘Good riddance’. You heard the same thing from his teammates at Nottinghamshire, where he made all the runs that got him into the England reckoning.
Some though would argue that the abrasiveness was a self-protective shell. Michael Vaughan, his captain during that famous Ashes summer of 2005 when he made both his debut and his name, certainly thought so. In an interview with The Guardian after the urn had been won back, Vaughan said: “KP is not a confident person. He obviously has great belief in his ability, but that's not quite the same thing. I know KP wants to be loved. I try to text him and talk to him as often as I can because I know he is insecure.”
With Pietersen, what you saw was seldom what you got. He was a master at saying the right things to the right people. In December 2008, a few weeks after terror attacks in Mumbai left hundreds dead and wounded, India chased down 387 in Chennai against an England side led by him. At the press conference, Pietersen was charm personified, calling Sachin Tendulkar "Superman" and making all the right noises about India and its people.
A few months later, he went for $1.55 million at the IPL auction. But in nearly a decade, he played just 36 IPL games, and none at all after 2016. The franchises thought him box-office, and he played the odd innings that proved as much, but you could never escape the impression that he hated the goldfish-bowl atmosphere of the IPL.
The last four years have been a blur of Twenty20 games across continents, most of the innings forgotten by the next morning. But what will endure, despite all the controversy, is his body of work with England. Just think back to that Lord’s debut — the six over long-off against Glenn McGrath, the soaring clip over midwicket off Shane Warne, and the Brett Lee short ball that landed up on a balcony.
He may not have been everyone’s cup of Tetley tea, but Pietersen could play. Like few others ever have.