The batsman’s ego – a double-edged sword

Batting is largely a selfish pursuit. While making runs is what wins matches for the team, I can’t help but notice that so many of the world’s best batsmen are highly egotistical fellows. An arrogant and resolute self belief is many a sportsman’s most valuable trait but it is also so often his downfall.

Kevin Pietersen is probably the best batsman in the world and he knows as much. His stubborn confidence in his abilities is indicative of the fact that he genuinely believes that there isn’t anything he cannot do with the bat – a conviction that usually stands him in very good stead.

There is only a sheet of glass between my seat in the Rugby Stand end at Headingley and the players pavilion on my left, and I spent a long while this morning watching Kevin Pietersen warming up his body and mind while waiting to bat when the defiant nightwatchman James Anderson was finally dismissed. He caught my attention because of the enthusiasm of this preparation; the focus in his eyes and the vigour with which he stretched his body and knocked his bat on the concrete floor.

Despite standing in the field for six of the previous nine days, KP looked like a man possessed and as I observed his behaviour I suddenly realised that he believed he was going to win a pretty un-winnable match for England. At the time England were two down and still 220 runs short of wiping out the South African first-innings lead of 319 runs.

But stranger things have happened at Headingley. Most readers would either remember or would have heard of the 1981 Ashes Test when England had followed on and were 135 for 7. Ian Botham then unleashed that extraordinary 149 not out and Bob Willis bowled the Australians out to win by 18 runs, thereby beating the odds at the local bookies of 500/1.

It was clear to me that Kevin Pietersen imagined, even believed, that today he would do something similarly heroic. He beat his chest and then walked to the middle, and at a time when a demoralised England needed to bat out two full days for a draw, KP struck 13 magnificent runs in only four deliveries and then edged the next ball from Jacques Kallis to Mark Boucher.

KP was not the only one to get out to a ball he could have left. In fact six of the ten England dismissals in the second innings would have been avoided if the English batsmen had just watched the ball go past the off stump. The same goes for at least as many of England’s first-innings dismissals.

Michael Vaughan seemed to accept the inevitable loss during the afternoon session and popped by the press box to demand a humorous word with a certain tabloid cricket correspondent who was responsible for today’s newspaper headline, “Vaughan the Prawn!”.

We had just recovered from this hilarious episode when Pietersen came in to ask if he could borrow some binoculars. A journalist from an English daily passed him a pair and KP, noticing they were very small, asked in a strong South African accent, “Do these f***ing things work?”

The journalist’s reply came sharply: “They were good enough to see your dismissal, KP!” I don’t think Pietersen will be giving that paper any interviews in the near future.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in July 2008, during South Africa’s tour of England.

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