Kevin Pietersen feels the love on his English return
Behold, the power and the glory of Kevin Pietersen. At The Oval on Wednesday night, a sell-out crowd did just that.
Here was a sight most had presumed they would never see again: Pietersen captivating an English audience, and at the venue where he had played his most celebrated innings of all.
The boisterous cheers that greeted Pietersen when he arrived at the crease 12 years after the innings that secured the 2005 Ashes in a sea of cricketing fervour were exactly as he would have wished.
His Surrey return, which he says will be his final season of county cricket, is doubling as a valedictory tour to the English cricket public - a chance for the crowds to prove how much they still love him, even if Andrew Strauss and co do not.
The early stages of Pietersen's innings against Essex in the NatWest Blast gave off the air of a boxer who had unwisely returned to the ring for one bout too many. He took 17 balls over his first 14 runs and was reprieved twice - a regulation catch at midwicket, and a stumping. It all seemed to betray a man who had not played professional cricket for almost six months.
As Living On A Prayer bellowed out at The Oval, the same could be said of Pietersen's innings.
But it is never wise to reprieve Pietersen, much less so at this ground. Like a surfer waiting to ride the perfect wave, Pietersen chose his ideal target - an offspinner, the type of bowler he scores quickest against in T20. Not just any old offspinner either, but Simon Harmer, also South African-born and the leading County Championship wicket-taker of 2017.
The first ball was struck off the front foot over midwicket for six. The next, pitched short, was pulled over the same region. A single followed; then Harmer went wider outside off stump and endured another heave over midwicket. Harmer's final ball, a rank full toss, was dispatched to the same heaving throngs in the OCS Stand,
It attested to one of the enduring traits of Pietersen's greatness: how he can intimidate fine bowlers off their game. With four sixes in five balls, each hit with more ferocity than the last, and cheered more raucously, Pietersen was back. And so was the love.
The initial rust was hardly surprising. Pietersen had not batted in a T20 game in England for 1061 days, and not played a T20 at all for almost six months. He chose not even to put himself up for this year's Indian Premier League auction, with IPL insiders suggesting that he was unlikely to have been picked up.
The lack of cricket has provided ample time for other pursuits, which were not even curtailed by the start of this year's Blast. Instead, he arrived fashionably late.
He has become an impassioned advocate for the Save the Rhino campaign, using stickers on his bat to draw attention to the cause and even persuading Surrey to stage a double-header at the Oval next month to raise funds.
In keeping with this love of nature, he is having a lodge built on the edge of a nature reserve in South Africa; time spent there will preclude him from returning to play in county cricket again. And he spent last week on a game reserve in South Africa, breaking up his time on the safari and golf course to berate the third day of the Trent Bridge Test - marked by Hashim Amla's disciplined plotting of a route to victory - as tedious.
Only on Monday did he resume training with Surrey, two days before trying to make light of a six-month absence and invigorate his career at 37.
On the day of his return, he played golf in the morning, and then went on TalkSport to declare that Gary Ballance and Keaton Jennings were not Test batsmen. He even speculated that he might play for South Africa in the 2019 World Cup: all rather bewildering, not just because the timing jarred with his return to the English game but also because he has not played a List A game for four years and seems in no hurry to change the fact. But, in another sense, the timing of his bizarre claim was perfect: for Pietersen, like John McEnroe, the only thing worse than being criticised is being ignored.
Here, once again, he was impossible to ignore with the bat. A straight six off Ryan ten Doeschate was the finest shot of the evening - a fusion of quick hands and peerless timing, the sort of stroke that purist members and post-work revellers can take equal delight in. When Pietersen brought up his 50 soon after, it was, remarkably, his first ever in a T20 match for Surrey and, even more absurdly, his first half-century in the T20 Blast (or Twenty20 Cup, as it was back then) since 2004.
It is a stark illustration of how Pietersen has struggled with the bitty nature of English domestic T20 - he had played 24 innings without a fifty in the tournament since. He will hope that this year's more condensed schedule proves altogether more amenable.
Pietersen's innings was the major factor in Surrey's 10-run win. But, for all the majesty of those five sixes, it was a curious innings, one of biff or block with nothing in between. It contained not a single two and the sense of a batsman feeling his way back into the game never entirely dissipated. Haring between the wickets, once a Pietersen trademark, was absent; instead his singles were ambled with the pace of someone double his 37 years. He pleaded a mild calf strain, another complication to surmount.
Yet his achievement was a remarkable one, suggesting that, even in an age of uber-professional T20, Pietersen can still lead a remarkable double life, moving seamlessly between a life of effective retirement from the sport to being a leading player on the T20 circuit.
He differs from most other T20 specialists in being much more selective about when he plays. He had a seven-month break in 2016, before this year's six months off - making his challenge more onerous. Yet he continues to rise to it. In the last year, Pietersen has averaged 38.28 in the Big Bash League, 39.60 in the Ram Slam in South Africa, and 34.42 in the Pakistan Super League.
His innings at The Oval - not quite vintage Pietersen, yet still almost twice what anyone else managed in the match - suggested that, like Roger Federer, he can pick and choose his matches as he enters sporting middle age, and that gaping gaps between games need not dilute his effectiveness.
He does not train as much as he used to but he trains smarter. Across sport, a combination of science and assiduous management is helping elite athletes thrive later in their careers. Pietersen could yet maintain his double life for several more years, if he is so inclined.
When he skied a ball to midwicket, he removed his helmet, walked off slowly and acknowledged the crowd's applause. His night's work was done; that calf strain, perhaps not inconveniently, rendered Pietersen unable to field, though he still reckons he will be able to play against Middlesex in the London derby on Friday.
A little older and a little stiffer, Pietersen is back - and with his sense of theatre undimmed. Enjoy him while you can.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts