The Parks, Oxford. If the setting is as low-key as it is pleasant, then the occasion is certainly one of note.
Kevin Pietersen, English cricket’s star-in-exile, will pull on the whites on Sunday and play first-class cricket for the first time in 15 months. His stated aim? A 105th Test cap.
Pietersen’s international career, for those who gave up watching the 2013-14 Ashes after three Tests and subsequently resisted the temptation to buy the DVD, came to an abrupt halt in a three-day match. And now his comeback – if that is truly what this is – begins with one. The comparison ends there.
Because the students of the Oxford MCCU side who host Surrey – while the County Championship chugs into life elsewhere – are a far cry from the 11-strong pack of Baggy Green-wearing hyenas at the Sydney Cricket Ground that whooped and hollered after Ryan Harris teased the inside edge of Pietersen’s bat and George Bailey clung on at short-leg.
It was the last time the right-handed batsman faced the red ball in a competitive match. Had the incoming chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Colin Graves, not curiously rubbed the lamp at the beginning of last month by stating the selectors could not ignore a mountain of runs in county cricket, it would have been the final time too.
But now the 34-year-old Pietersen, emboldened by those comments and subsequent conversations with the man from which they originated, has found a way out of the bulk of his Indian Premier League commitments with Sunrisers Hyderabad and is back playing four-day cricket for Surrey.
His hope is that the England revolution which started on Wednesday with the sacking of managing director Paul Downton continues to see opponents to his return dispatched by the new England and Wales Cricket Board’s chief executive Tom Harrison. It remains very much an outside chance. Surrey, who begin their drive for promotion from Division Two at Cardiff next Sunday, will simply be happy to benefit from his attempts.
“For all our guys that are shooting for the international stuff, they need to get it right here for us and that sort of thing will take care of itself,” says Gareth Batty, Surrey’s newly installed captain. “Kevin is back playing county cricket, and while the assumption is that is not all he’s targeting, he does want to make a difference for Surrey – he’s buying into everything. If he can sprinkle a bit of magic – and I’m but a mere mortal – then I’m all for that.”
Pietersen will not be the only stellar name at The Oval this summer, with the 37-year-old Kumar Sangakkara understood to be arriving on Monday to begin the first season of the Sri Lankan’s two-year deal. The prospect of both men at the crease is among the most mouth-watering in county cricket this summer.
“Let’s be honest, it’s like Christmas Day. I’m a cricket badger, I’ll want to go and get their autograph every day,” Batty says. “Those two are greats of the game. That word gets thrown around a lot nowadays because it’s the modern way of Twitter and social media to big each other up. I don’t buy into that American stuff, but I do buy into greats and their numbers mean they are great.”
While Pietersen will draw crowds and the national media – an auxiliary press box will be set up at the Parks – Sangakkara’s absence from Sunday’s fixture is a disappointment for the Oxford MCCU coach, Graham Charlesworth, who had hope his charges would face both of Batty’s “greats”.
“We competed well during the week against Middlesex and the game was in the balance on the third day, even with the likes of Nick Compton and Steven Finn in their side,” he says. “Now we’re very excited by this Surrey fixture, especially with KP in their side. He’s a fine cricketer but we’ll have a crack.”
The make-up of his side is a nine-two split between Oxford Brookes University and Oxford University, with Abidine Sakande, a 6ft 5in fast bowler who is reading natural sciences at St John’s College, and Sam Weller, a seamer studying business management at Oxford Brookes and the students’ captain, presenting the biggest threat with the ball.
“The key is that the players stay grounded and don’t get too carried away with the occasion,” says Charlesworth. “But our players are very professional in their cricket and this is vital experience for them.
“Sakande bowls with good pace and has interested all the county coaches we’ve played against. Weller bowled 22 overs, took three for 26 against Middlesex and is on Kent’s books this summer.”
And a left-arm spinner? “We don’t have one in our side but hopefully we can get Pietersen to nick off before the spinners come on,” he adds, in wry fashion. Whatever happens, as with all things Pietersen, it will be a story.
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