Saturday 18 February 2012

A rare treat for English spectators!

English spectators were handed a treat about as rare as a steak tartare chilled by the trailing ice of Halley’s Comet out in Dubai today. Scratch that, two treats: a Kevin Pietersen One Day International century, his first since November of 2008, and an English run chase that allowed fingernails to remain fully intact.

Losing the toss for the first time in this four match series, England captain Alastair Cook saw his opposite number Misbah ul-Haq opt to bat first, leaving England with a potentially tricky run chase that evening under the ‘ring of fire’ of lights in the Dubai Sports City stadium.

Despite a flying start from Mohammad Hafeez and Imran Farhat, it was once again the 22 year old Steven Finn that proved the scourge of the Pakistani batting line-up, removing both openers in convincing fashion either side of Stuart Broad seeing Azhar Ali caught behind by Craig Kieswetter when playing a ghastly stroke away from his body as a mini collapse ensued. Misbah came and went, presenting Graeme Swann with a sharp catch at first slip off the bowling of Broad, before Asad Shafiq suffered a rather unfortunate run-out as his grounded bat rebounded off the surface following a desperate dive for safety right at the moment that Craig Kieswetter whipped off the bails. A cruel blow for Pakistan, and due to perhaps the harshest rule in the cricketing book.

At 97-5 Pakistan were teetering precariously on the brink of capitulation, but a measure of serenity was to be restored by the unlikeliest of candidates. Umar Akmal, a youngster of prodigious talent and perhaps too low in the order at number six, combined with the impulsive Shahid ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi to put on a measured 79 runs for Pakistan’s sixth wicket and leave them with a fighting chance of staying in the series. Afridi had his moments, as ever, hoisting an enormous six in to the stands off the bowling of Swann, but proceeded to construct a mature innings few observers perceived the modern Afridi capable of accomplishing.

With Pakistan having passed 175 with ten overs remaining in the innings, hopes were rekindling of posting a competitive total; the destructive Akmal and Afridi waiting to go ballistic at the death. England’s two senior pace men, Stuart Broad and James Anderson, soon returned to put paid to such optimisms however, removing the Pakistani duo within two overs of each other to reduce Pakistan to 180-7. A late cameo from the big hitting Umar Gul took Pakistan to 222 all out from 50 overs, a total looking significantly sub-par given the way the pitch had played throughout the innings.
KP - First ODI ton in 37 innings

In response, England’s opening pair arrived at the crease amidst vastly different circumstances. Talk of Alastair Cook becoming the first England batsman to hit three successive ODI centuries met the captain’s arrival, whilst rumour of his place in the England ODI setup being under threat greeted the entrance of former captain Kevin Pietersen. Such aspersions were soon cast aside, as something resembling the Pietersen of old utilised deft footwork combined with powerful strokeplay; the highlight being a monstrous straight six off the bowling of off-spinner Hafeez, deposited well beyond the sightscreen. Despite being dropped on 45 as Azhar spilled a hard, flat pull in the deep, the intent never wavered.

Captain Cook played a blinder of his own, cutting and pulling with emphatic majesty as he scored heavily square of the wicket. Hopes of making history with a third successive century were dashed when on 80, however, as Cook feathered the thinnest of edges through to Adnan Akmal off the bowling of Pakistan’s destroyer-in-chief Saeed Ajmal. The fall of the first wicket, with England handsomely set on 170-1, saw the promotion of the recently hapless Eoin Morgan to number three ahead of Jonathan Trott; a ploy no doubt for the unorthodox left hander to regain a modicum of confidence following a rotten run of form. Utterly bamboozled by the trickery of Ajmal at first, Morgan eventually found his feet, hitting straight boundaries that included a sumptuous maximum over long on off the bowling of his tormentor Ajmal.

The moment of the match, though, was reserved for Pietersen. Under pressure and without a ODI century in over three years, England’s ‘gun’ player looked back to his best as he moved effortlessly through the nervous 90’s before tucking an Aizaz Cheema delivery off his hips for the two runs that saw him reach three figures. Cue an extravagant fist pump and a flourish of the bat to all corners of the ground; the big man was back in business. Finishing the innings 111 not out with a powerfully driven boundary, thus giving England a nine wicket win and rare series victory in Asia, Pietersen silenced many a critic that felt his place in the England ODI setup to be undeserved.

Remarkably, with Pietersen opening the innings in ODI cricket, England have seen opening stands of 68, 91, 1, 57, 67 and 170. After umpteen opening partnership combinations in recent years, perhaps in the stoic Cook and the flamboyant Pietersen England have stumbled upon a pair in which success can be found.

A 3-0 Test series ‘greenwash’ hurt England, but some solace will doubtless have been found with this convincing series win, one that they will be looking to make a whitewash of their own when the sides meet again in the same stadium on Tuesday. That their batsmen appear to be learning how to play spin properly so late in this tour will come as little comfort for the Test series humbling, but it does make one wonder if the Test series result would have been the same had the ODI series been scheduled first. Either way, what odds would have been given for a Pakistan Test series clean sweep and an England limited overs brushing, I wonder?

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