Kevin Pietersen was given a harsh introduction into Test cricket after Australia ruthlessly exploited his fluctuating fortunes to take command of the opening Test at Lord’s.
Rightly applauded off the field after his entertaining 57 had restricted Australia’s first innings lead to just 35 at the start of the second day, he was cast in the role of villain hours later when his costly drop of Michael Clarke allowed the tourists to establish a potential match-winning advantage.
By the time stumps were drawn at the end of another absorbing day of the Ashes series, Australia had progressed into a 314-run lead on 279 for seven – already an imposing advantage even without the prospect of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath bowling in tandem on a wearing pitch in the final innings.
England will almost certainly be downcast at another day ultimately dominated by Australia, particularly as they have only successfully chased more than 300 three times previously in their history.
But their biggest frustration will almost certainly be their inability to take their chance to claim the dominant position.
Yesterday the top order collapsed after Australia had been dismissed for a lowly 190 – resulting in England resuming this morning on a perilous 92 for seven.
Instead of capitulating this morning, however, Pietersen rallied the lower order and they added a crucial 63 runs with England’s celebrated debutant leading the charge with a series of flamboyant strokes.
Having batted responsibly during the opening day collapse – his unbeaten 28 took nearly two hours at the crease – Pietersen clearly decided this morning was the stage for Lord’s to be entertained by his attacking brand of strokeplay.
Perhaps influenced by the loss of Matthew Hoggard to Warne in the third over of the day, Pietersen launched McGrath for a straight six into the pavilion and Warne was despatched into the lower tier of the grandstand.
He tried to repeat the shot against Warne but instead picked out Damien Martyn, who took a running, diving catch just inside the boundary rope which drew gasps of admiration throughout the ground.
Steve Harmison and Simon Jones continued where Pietersen left off and added 33 off 29 balls to lift hopes that momentum was now back with England and Australia could capitulate in a similar manner to the opening day.
That looked a possibility with Pietersen showing his agility in the field to run out Justin Langer in the sixth over of the their reply, while Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting once again got themselves out once set attempting aggressive shots.
Perhaps the key moment of the day, however, came with Australia 174 runs ahead on 139 for three and the tea interval just moments away when Clarke, then on 22, drove loosely at Jones straight to Pietersen at cover – only for the South African-born all-rounder to spill the regulation chance.
It was the third dropped catch of his debut, but unlike the two on the opening day which failed to cost England many runs, this time Clarke cashed in on the mistake and for the next two hours the fielding in general deteriorated.
Hoggard allowed the ball through his legs for one boundary, Andrew Flintoff and captain Michael Vaughan missed drives they should have stopped, while Pietersen’s miserable afternoon was complete when his shy at the stumps off a no-ball flew to the boundary.
Clarke teamed up with Martyn to add a further 116 runs towards a 155-run partnership spanning 34 overs which took the game nearly out of reach until England summoned enough determination and inspiration to claim four wickets for 24 runs in 51 balls.
Having overcome his early reprieve, Clarke had gone on to hit 15 boundaries and was within nine runs of his third Test century when he chased a wide delivery from Hoggard and chopped onto his stumps via his back leg.
England quickly followed that unexpected breakthrough with Harmison winning a leg before appeal against Martyn.
Flintoff maintained England’s revival by nipping a full-length delivery back to Adam Gilchrist and knocking back his off-stump and Harmison rocked Warne with a short delivery he could only fend off to gully off the final ball of the day.
Lifted by their final flurry, England left the field to another enthusiastic ovation.
But the historians among the Lord’s crowd need little reminding that the hosts’ highest successful final innings chase ever at this ground was last year’s 282 for three to beat New Zealand – while their biggest ever was only 332 for seven against Australia in Melbourne in 1928-29.