ENGLAND appear increasingly confident Kevin Pietersen will be fit for purpose as they bid to win the Ashes in Manchester.
Pietersen’s readiness was put to a stern test yesterday morning, for the second day running, as he continues his recovery from the calf strain which interrupted his participation in the latter stages of England’s 347-run victory in the second Investec Test at Lord’s.
Alastair Cook’s team therefore have an opportunity, in the third match of five starting at Emirates Old Trafford this morning, to clinch the urn for a third successive time.
The captain made it clear, after Pietersen had batted for 50 minutes in the indoor nets and then satisfied the medics with shuttle runs outdoors as the rain temporarily cleared, that he expects England’s game-changer to take part against Australia.
The contingency for the hosts is a return for James Taylor, selected as Pietersen’s batting cover in a 14-man squad, for his third Test having fallen out of favour after also helping to deputise for the same player – in differing circumstances – at Lord’s last year.
But whoever joins forces for England this week, Cook is adamant each batsman must play to his own strengths and will not be briefed to try to adapt his skills to make up for the absence of another.
Asked how he rates the chances of Pietersen playing here, Cook said: “Pretty good.
“He has gone through training the last two days and done everything we’ve asked of him.”
England’s captain was characteristically cautious, but tellingly optimistic. “Clearly we have to make that decision tomorrow morning, in case he pulls up differently, but we’re pretty hopeful,” he added.
“We don’t know quite how he will pull up from today’s training. But he’s worked incredibly hard with the medical team over this last week to get himself right, so fingers crossed he has.”
Taylor’s methods, especially perhaps at this formative stage of his international career, are notably more conservative than those of instinctive agitator Pietersen.
But Cook will be asking none of his specialist batsmen to do anything but be themselves.
“Kev’s a bit of a one-off... he has the ability to win games of cricket very quickly on his own,” Cook added.
“That hundred in Mumbai [last November] sums it up – not many people could have played an innings like that in those conditions.
“But you’ve got to be very strong on yourselves, that you can’t play like someone else.”
England have had to get by with Pietersen several times over the past 12 months, either because of his contractual difficulties last summer or more recently due to injuries in New Zealand, so they have therefore had to get used to raising their game without him.
“Just because KP doesn’t play a Test match or a one-day game, you can’t ask people to bat like him,” Cook added. “They are picked on their strengths, and that’s the way they play to score the runs they get picked for. You can’t adjust that.”
Australia captain Michael Clarke, meanwhile, has reiterated his optimistic belief his side can still win the Ashes this summer. “I honestly believe we can win this series,” Clarke said.
“I know there’s a lot of people out there that will laugh at me saying that. But I wouldn’t be here today if I thought this team wasn’t good enough to have success. The reality is our backs are against the wall.”
Australia could be reinforced by the return of controversial left-hander David Warner, after he hit 193 for Australia A during his exile to Africa last week, but Clarke is wary on pinning his faith on the return of one man.
Should Warner return, Australia must decide which batsman to drop with Steve Smith – who made a century in the tour game at Sussex last week – under a fitness cloud.
Smith sat out Tuesday’s practice session with a bad back but trained yesterday.
Should Smith be passed fit, Phil Hughes appears the man most likely to make way after he managed two scores of one at Lord’s.