The Parks is a garden city for English cricket, a place where the pastoral idyll is tamed and shaped within an urban landscape, to meet the needs of a specific purpose, and to improve it. The Victorian Gothic gable of Keble College is visible in one direction, off beyond the prim pavilion. Looking the opposite direction, cranes rise beyond the cedars, their jibs capping the roofs of grand North Oxford houses. Blossom blooms behind the covers.
It was a blustery day there yesterday. You could lean into the wind. But a sizeable crowd had gathered, wrapped up warm and perching on seats they had brought themselves. They had come to see a man who would seemingly reject this place, one that epitomised the traditions he has jarred against. Elite meets archaic, the cricket promising to be staid and uncompetitive.
A lone bumblebee rises for the cropped grass in front of the pavilion. Buffeted, it buzzes back to the ground. A skittish dog ends up on the wrong side of the boundary. Late in the day, gulls and crows dance in the wind and drop to peck at the outfield.
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A friend had heard who was batting and dashed back to Oxford. There’s a magnetism to the man batting, drawing people to watch him. We arrived at lunch, similarly lured by the prospect of seeing him. No music or cheerleaders to enhance the viewing experience. No charge to enter, no ticket. But roll up, roll up. Kevin Pietersen is in town.
He emerged from beside the pavilion, a head taller than his partner at the crease, his mannerisms familiar to those who have watched him for a decade. The wide stance, the flex of the knees, the jutting left elbow. The glare at the pitch when he failed to play the ball as he wished. The jabbing at the wicket with his bat, tending his patch, shoulders hunched. Lunges to stretch his legs at the non-strikers end. The mix of sublime and ridiculous, controlled and crude.
He was circumspect even past fifty, but seemed to score runs as he wished. The bowling lacked potency, but those Pietersen trademarks were there. The long reach muscling the ball through the covers or whipping it through midwicket. The distinctive long stride and ferocious concentration. He was as orthodox as he ever is, barring a slapped pull-sweep wide of mid-on. He played and missed once or twice, and the crowd seemed tense at times. Pietersen in The Parks is a rare sight, one to be prolonged and savoured.
He was scratchy in the nineties. Gary Wilson, batting at the other end, chipped a six over long on. It landed a few yards from where we sat, with the thunk of ball on turf. Wilson was at the World Cup. He played a match-winning innings. He watched de Villiers, Gayle and Dhoni up close. Now he was watching Pietersen, in white, in Oxford, in form.
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Oxford brought their opening batsman on to bowl, a stocky chap with a barrelling run up and rolling action. Pietersen laced his first delivery through the covers to reach his century. The celebration was low-key – bat cocked to the pavilion, then to the crowd. The next delivery was hacked high into the off side. The cover sweeper dashed in, but the ball held up in the wind, and he couldn’t hold on to the catch diving forward. The supporters at his back didn’t seem to mind so much.
The next passage of play, from century to dismissal, was Pietersen in excelsis. He was still a touch scratchy, and at times seemed to repeat a shot simply in order to practice it. But he showed the repertoire of the hired gun, and the skill of the great. He scooped a delivery from a medium pacer for four, like a man shovelling dirt over his shoulder. He played a reverse pat, where the ball just hit the blade and scooted away. He played a reverse sweep as powerful as any shot hit all day. He hit consecutive sixes, one an enormous baseball thrash that sailed off behind the pavilion, denting a car, the next a straight drive that scudded into the sightscreen. He played several consecutive reverse sweeps, with mixed success, only to bully the next ball to the straight boundary when the bowler thought he had him sussed. He pressed a single to the cover sweeper, with magical wrists that opened the blade so late that the spectator was baffled by how the ball could have gone where it did. In the subtlest sleight of hand, his true skill was revealed.
Abidine Sakande, the students’ springy opening bowler, hurled two wayward bouncers down, and Pietersen ducked both, seemingly bemused that he was being bounced. He hacked another shot in the air, and once again was dropped as the ball held up in the wind. Then he fell, a short ball from Sakande swatted towards mid-on, who took it above his head. It didn’t go high, just looped, and never threatened to elude the fielder. A gaggle of fans gathered under the scoreboard to watch Pietersen depart. Passing the smartphone photographers, he could have been leaving an IPL training session. But he stood tall in white, head only slightly down. He accepted the congratulations of a few spectators. With his helmet off, you saw his greying hair. Forget the skunk, this was the statesman.
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Part of the beauty of The Parks is the proximity to the players. A fast bowler grazing in the deep is accessible for congratulation and conversation. Late in the day, after the exodus, after the declaration, Matt Dunn, the Surrey fast bowler stood in front of us. His cable-knit jumper was stretched across his back, and the name and number on his shirt could be seen through the wool. The sweater was the traditional style, cream trimmed with Surrey brown. Pietersen wore one too, to bat and field. You don’t see them so much any more.
Pietersen stood at mid-off, occasionally fizzing the ball to the keeper. He barely fielded a shot. Despite his familiar mannerisms, he blended in in the field. The backs of his boots were a luminous orange, but with his brown cap pulled low, he was inconspicuous. A spectator arriving late in the day might not have noticed that the tall fielder was him. Had they seen him bat, there would have been no doubt.
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Spread the word. He has returned. The prince over the water has landed. He has made his statement. It was him. We are sure. We have seen him. He has returned. Spread the word.