England are hoping their new, “reintegrated” Kevin Pietersen has not changed too much.
Alastair Cook’s team will be banking on the superstar batsman to be back with his usual swagger and dominance when the Test series against India gets underway tomorrow.
Pietersen, of course, has had to convince England management and senior players of his goodwill to regain favour in time for the demanding challenge in the sub-continent after his summer of discontent over contract wrangles, text messages and other vexations.
What England cannot afford, however, is for a humbled Pietersen to return with his talents diluted.
That certainly did not seem the case, albeit against modest opposition, when the South Africa-born player warmed up for the first of four Tests with a power-packed century against Haryana last week.
And wicketkeeper Matt Prior believes that Pietersen is still the real deal.
“We wouldn’t want KP to change too much, because it is how he is that makes him special as a player,” Prior said.
“If Kev suddenly became this shy, introverted character I would be more worried. I want him to go out and express himself, as he does.”
Pietersen has an adoring public, as well as team-mates, to please here – thanks to his exploits in the Indian Premier League.
The partisan crowds will be aghast if he helps England to an improbable series victory against their home-grown heroes but they would doubtless like to see some fireworks from him, too.
“You only have to walk around India and see these guys who have watched him play in the IPL, they can’t wait to watch him bat – and we can’t either,” added Prior. “I’m glad he’s come back the same KP as he was.”
Under coach Andy Flower, new captain Cook and his predecessor Andrew Strauss, England have made team spirit perhaps their most valued virtue. And Prior insists that Pietersen is very much a part of that.
“The important thing is this group all pulling together in the right direction and Kev, the character that he is, pulling with us makes us a far stronger team. That is happening right now.”
Both behind the stumps and at No 7 in the order, Prior has a reputation as the epitome of England’s one-for-all ethos.
“I genuinely believe it’s the team in big situations that win you games and get you out of holes – 11 blokes pulling in the same direction, rather than one or two or three individuals,” he said. “Obviously individual performances, exceptional performances, always help but it’s the group that is stronger than anything.”
And Prior is confident Pietersen will not rocking the boat. “All I’m concerned about is that we start a Test match in two days’ time so he best be ‘reintegrated’. He is in our team and in our squad.”
England appear likely to go into the first Test without Steven Finn. The fast bowler did not bowl, as scheduled, in the nets yesterday as he continues his recovery from a thigh strain and seems set to watch from the sidelines tomorrow as Stuart Broad – himself still nursing a sore heel – takes the field in a three-man pace attack led by James Anderson.
Many believe spin rather than seam will have the most significant bearing on the series but Prior senses that adaptability is still required in sub-continental conditions.
“A lot of time you look at a wicket in India and think it’s going to deteriorate and turn into a dust bowl and a snake pit but it’s flat the whole game.
“There are other wickets that look flat for three days and then, in the last two, suddenly it turns and goes very low.
“We’ll have to keep our minds open, our options open and adapt to whatever circumstances over the five days of the Test.”
England famously beat India 4-0 15 months ago, to go to the top of the world rankings but they are well aware that home advantage is a major factor in the rematch.
“Certainly the shoe’s on the other foot but we’ve done a lot of good work, obviously after the bad experience of last winter [whitewashed by Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates], learning a lot from that and coming over here.
“We go into this Test match feeling fully prepared that we’ve covered every base.”
Victory in India, last achieved by an England team 27 years ago, would be an achievement to rank alongside the 2010/11 Ashes success – after a similar hiatus.
“Cricket is a religion out here and to play in front of people who have that mentality towards your game is a fantastic opportunity for any cricketer,” said Prior. “To then come out here and win in that environment would be even better.”
“I think the records speak for themselves, how long it’s been since England last won out here. All these little challenges amount to something that, if we could pull it off, would be a fantastic honour to be part of.”