Pietersen powers England
Kevin Pietersen adopted the role of entertainer-in-chief as he propelled England into an enviable position in the third and final npower Test against Sri Lanka.
The patience of a sell-out crowd, tested by yet more rain and the whims of the umpires, appeared somewhere close to breaking point during the last – and longest – of three afternoon stoppages.
But the slow hand-clapping and jeers that rang around the stadium when tea was taken under clear skies morphed into rapturous cheers as Pietersen embarked on a one-man peacekeeping mission.
He batted with immense fluency and supreme confidence, his concentration seemingly unaffected until he fell for 85 in the penultimate over of a day that saw 51 overs' play and ended with England 195 for four.
Although they lead by only 11, having bowled Sri Lanka out for 184 following a delayed start today (like every other), the manner in which Pietersen played not only sated the appetite of the spectators but gave England enough time to build a potentially match-winning total tomorrow.
The quality of his innings was heightened by the position from which it was constructed, with England tottering on 14 for two following the early loss of Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott.
Pietersen added 106 for the third wicket with Alastair Cook, who, in making 55, became only the fourth Englishman to score a record six successive Test half-centuries, and 71 with Ian Bell, who was 39 not out at stumps.
Hindsight is always a handy tool, but from the moment Pietersen straight-drove his third ball for four there seemed little doubt he was destined to score runs today.
And how. He oozed authority during his 115-ball innings, which contained 14 fours, the majority courtesy of an admirably straight bat.
Afforded a rapturous reception from his old home crowd when he walked out to bat, the ovation Pietersen received upon his return to the pavilion was equally fulsome. Only the cheer which greeted the first ball after the most infuriating of the afternoon stoppages was louder.
England needed just 10 minutes this morning to claim the last wicket of a Sri Lanka innings spanning three days.
By having Chanaka Welegedara, driving, taken at short extra-cover, Stuart Broad celebrated his first victim of the match after the tourists resumed on 177 for nine.
Dilhara Fernando finished unbeaten on 39 – his highest score in Tests – the value of which was heightened by the demise of Strauss and Cook in the first eight overs of England’s reply.
Strauss fell for single figures to left-arm seamer Welegedara for the third successive innings, drawn into playing at an outswinger that ended in the hands of Tharanga Paranavitana at first slip.
Trott, too, will be aggrieved at the manner of his dismissal, caught behind driving to give Suranga Lakmal reward for his rather obvious plan of bowling round the wicket.
Pietersen and Cook played with no little panache in repairing the damage. The former prospered square of the wicket, but the cleanest strikes of the day belonged to Pietersen, who thrice drove Lakmal in the arc between mid-on and mid-off before advancing to thump left-arm spinner Rangana Herath emphatically through extra-cover in the last over before lunch.
The crowd may have been unable to hide their frustration at seeing the players repeatedly forced from the field - the hard-working groundstaff deserved better - but Pietersen and Cook were seemingly unaffected.
Cook, having joined Patsy Hendren, Ted Dexter and Ken Barrington in passing 50 in six straight innings, was smartly held by Thilan Samaraweera at gully as he drove loosely at Dilhara Fernando, who later left with the field with knee trouble.
Bell scored with such freedom that he outscored Pietersen during their 16-over alliance, but the latter was responsible for arguably the most memorable shot, a disdainful pull off the front foot as he gave seamer Thisara Perera the charge.
Having reined in his attacking instincts as the day drew on, it came as a surprise when Pietersen edged an expansive drive off the same bowler.
Given the enjoyment he had provided - in a game when 155 overs have been lost thus far - any criticism directed his way at failing to reach three figures would be wholly misplaced.