For three full hours one morning in Dhaka, I had the best seat in the house to watch Kevin Pietersen bat. I was bowling to him, and it was a one-on-one battle.
At the time, I was playing First Division cricket in the Dhaka league system, while Pietersen was one of the best batsmen in the world. But when England arrived in Bangladesh in March 2010, he was in the midst of an apparent crisis of confidence against left-arm spin, so much so that even I got involved in his remedial process.
In a nutshell, Pietersen’s issue stemmed from the advent of umpiring technology, and the increasing willingness to award front-foot lbws. The left-arm spinner’s natural angle, tailing into the pads then straightening off the pitch, made a player such as Pietersen – with his love of a launch through the leg side – a particular target for our breed.
For that reason, it remains one of the greatest moments of my life when Pietersen asked me if I wanted to push midwicket back to the boundary. My club captains have never asked this as nicely as he did. I told him that I always have my midwicket saving a single. He nodded in agreement before crouching back into his stance. It is not every day that a club cricketer gets to have such a conversation with an international superstar.
How did this come about? In the early days of England’s tour, before the ODI series began, someone from my club asked me to report to the nets at the Shere Bangla National Stadium. Left-arm spinners are always in demand when any international side is touring Bangladesh, but the BCB was starting to be cautious about providing them. On this particular occasion, they had asked for just the one, and I was in the right place at the right time.
After being handed an old ball by England coach Andy Flower, I bowled to Craig Kieswetter before being asked to bowl to Pietersen. Soon after his stint ended, he asked me to follow him to the indoor nets, where I was asked to chuck left-arm spin at a higher pace. Much later, he was offering me a Gatorade.
As the England players were doing their cool-down stretches, Flower took me aside and asked me to come back to the nets on the day after the first ODI. He said that he wanted me to bowl at Pietersen exclusively. He was telling me nicely, which he really didn’t have to. I would take the chance of bowling at Pietersen any day. Who wouldn’t?
The following day, in the first ODI against Bangladesh, Pietersen played around a tossed-up delivery from Shakib Al Hasan, and edged to slip for 1. The scrutiny on his technique to left-arm spin had already been ramped up an extra notch.
Flower had told me to come quite early and, due to my excitement, I arrived with an extra 30 minutes to spare. I didn’t want to miss out on anything. As I walked into the net area, there was only Flower and Pietersen waiting for me. I quickly figured out that this session was about KP, and KP only. When I was (pretending to do some) stretching, I looked over to see him putting on the velcro of his gloves while Flower took the umpire’s position. They waited for me to finish.
“For the next two hours, I bowled endlessly to Pietersen and got him out a number of times. I can say that I troubled him”
Now this was intimidating while, at the same time, breaching my wildest fantasies as a club-level cricketer. Was I the chosen one who was going to cure Pietersen of his left-arm woes? Would he be thanking me in a few months’ time, after winning the ICC award? Clearly, I was getting too far ahead of myself.
But, at the same time, my fantasy was clearly the intended reality. As far as Flower was concerned, I was a useful local option for his star player, with a bowling action and a natural length that was close to what he would be facing against Shakib and Abdur Razzak. Obviously I was nowhere near to their level, but you don’t expect so much from a net bowler. You are just expecting simulation, a mock-up of a far more intense battle ahead.
What was immediately evident was how eagerly Pietersen was buying into Flower’s emphasis of extra training. He was relaxed, and the entire time I was there, there was an ongoing dialogue between player and coach. It is something that you expect when a player’s desire to improve meets a coach’s attention to detail, but it seems especially noteworthy now, given how ugly their relationship would become in later years. At this stage of their respective careers, they looked to be reading from the same page.
After bowling a few sighters to warm up my shoulders, I embarked on the most treasured net session of my playing career. For the first 20 minutes, I focused simply on not embarrassing myself. Here was one of the premier batsmen in the world, and one of the best coaches, watching over me, and no one else. I couldn’t bowl a delivery that bounced twice or one that didn’t bounce at all. I had to be unnoticeable, but my bowling had to be useful.
To start with, I bowled normally which, for a player of Pietersen’s calibre, meant it was far too easy. He gleefully drove and cut and pulled me. After about two overs, however, I started to get a snap off my fingers and the shoulders seemed to be coming down as I had intended them to. I had just completed a decent season, so this snap was familiar and welcome.
Soon afterwards, Pietersen missed the ball while charging at me, and would probably have been stumped. I was lucky, I thought. But it also dawned on me that perhaps his broad stance was restricting his movement at the crease. I felt that if I bowled it slightly slower through the air but ensured it dipped in front of him, it could draw out a mistake. Flower meanwhile seemed to be focusing more on him finding the right angles to time the ball, as he stopped me a couple of times to show Pietersen exactly where he wanted him to guide the ball with his hands.
From where I was standing, at least, it seemed that Pietersen’s brilliance gave him almost too many options against bowlers of my type. It was clear that he was seeing the ball straight from the hand and was moving earlier than I sometimes anticipated – a trait common to most international batsmen. But thereafter, against a form of bowling he had once described as “pies”, he was getting himself into a tangle while trying to choose the right shot.
For about the next two hours, I bowled endlessly to Pietersen, and he got out a number of times. I can say that I troubled him on occasions. While there were several stumpings that might not have happened in a match situation, I also had him trapped lbw; by his own admission at least twice, and Flower judged another one to be very close.
I clean bowled him once with one that pitched on middle and spun through a forward defensive push. Pietersen nodded in approval.
By then, I had a measure of what Flower and Pietersen expected me to do: bowl as I please. Flower, on occasions, wanted to know what I was trying to do to the batsman. I remember telling him that the basic idea was to make him drive the ball and just when he steps out, get one to spin away at a higher pace.
There were a few more miscues that both Pietersen and Flower admitted would have been caught in the outfield. But one of my most vivid memories was seeing Flower and Pietersen discuss techniques and tactics. They were essentially planning against my bowling, focusing on how that planning could then be taken into the matches. Flower was very attentive to details, from checking my energy levels to minutely observing Pietersen.
They both asked me a few times to set a field but, nice guy that I am, I asked Pietersen to set his own field. Flower smiled and reminded me of the ridiculousness of my gesture. I set my field, and Pietersen kept asking me about close-in fielders.
Towards the end I started to bowl from wide of the crease so that I could dip it into Pietersen’s pads, hoping that if it turned away, I could get him to play around it. He launched me through midwicket and over long-on but, every so often, when the ball dipped and spun slightly, he missed a few.
At one stage, Graeme Swann walked over and stood next to the nets. He offered me some amazing tips to vary my pace through using a combination of my wrist, shoulder and elbow. He was kind enough to show me how he delivered the ball from different heights and angles, and I sneakily picked up his grip, the famous twist of the door-knob.
By the time the rest of the England players arrived for their routine net session, Pietersen was nearly done picking me apart. I think I had bowled about 30 overs or more, and even if there were many dismissals, he must also have completed a century quite comfortably.
Afterwards, he asked me if I needed anything and whether I’d be back in the nets before the Dhaka Test. I don’t remember what I said but I had recently agreed to return to work for the Daily Star newspaper. No cricket board in their right mind would allow a journalist to bowl in the nets.
Next morning, one of the local newspapers had a story about this entire net session. My mother, who was the first person to see it in the morning, was shocked that I didn’t tell her that I had got Pietersen out. Club cricketers like me crave for their name to appear in the newspaper, with their bowling figures next to it. This was a proper piece with me in the first para. I had arrived, I thought.
But had Pietersen returned to form, as a consequence of my involvement? Not immediately. He fell to Razzak in each of the next two ODIs, and again in the first innings of the first Test at Chittagong. However, on that occasion, he left the field for a bittersweet 99 – a score that epitomised both the struggles he was experiencing, and the efforts he was making to overcome them.
“I’ve had to make an adjustment to the way I play left-arm spin,” he admitted to the media after that innings. “I won’t stop learning and I won’t stop working hard, which I love, because you are never too good for anything. This morning I figured the hours I’ve put into net practice this week were bound to pay off at some stage.”
And sure enough, by the end of that same year, he had found a means to battle back to his best. When, at Adelaide in the second Test of that winter’s Ashes, I watched him tear into Xavier Doherty on his way to a series-defining double-century, I was able to take a small measure of pleasure in the success of a thorough professional who had tremendous respect for the game and those involved with it.