Kevin Pietersen's enviable quality of transforming almost everything he touches into success continued here last night when he starred in England's 20-run victory in the opening one-dayer of the NatWest Series. The new captain initially shone with the bat, scoring a brilliant unbeaten 90 in the home side's highly competitive total of 275. He received wonderful support from Andrew Flintoff, who struck an equally impressive 78, as the pair put on a wonderfully entertaining 158-run partnership.
But it was in the field that Pietersen's midas powers really came to the fore. A violent start by the South Africans left a capacity crowd fearing that England's total would not prove enough but three bowling changes by the captain brought immediate reward. The first involved Stephen Harmison, whose return from retirement had plenty to do with Pietersen's powers of persuasion. With his fourth ball, and with South Africa on 50 without loss in the eighth over, Harmison found the outside edge of Graeme Smith's bat. Matthew Prior, the England wicketkeeper, did the rest.
Then, eight overs later, Pietersen turned to Samit Patel, Nottinghamshire's left-arm spinning all-rounder, playing in just his second match for his country. Herschelle Gibbs was looking extremely dangerous but Patel bowled him with his second ball. With his confidence high and anything seemingly possible Pietersen then turned to himself. In his first over he had AB de Villiers caught at midwicket; in his second, he played a part in the run-out of Jacques Kallis for 52; and in his fourth he lured Mark Boucher out of his crease.
The ritual worked again when South Africa were getting ever closer to England's total. With the home team needing a wicket Pietersen brought Harmison back into the attack and the fast bowler struck in his returning over when he found the outside edge of JP Duminy's bat. The wicket reduced South Africa to 208 for 6, a position that effectively ended their run chase.
"Things are working at the moment," said a delighted Pietersen. "But there is no point getting ahead of ourselves because we start every series well – we always win the first game and then mess the next four up. The key to tonight's victory is that we focus on Nottingham on Tuesday: we turn up with the same energy, the same buzz and the same confidence."
When Pietersen joined Flintoff in the England side in 2005 the team's supporters would have imagined spending many glorious afternoons watching the pair destroy international bowling attacks. Sadly, England's two star attractions have spent far too little time together in the middle, but yesterday they lit up a glum and overcast Headingley, taking the South Africans apart in that 158-run partnership collected off just 129 balls.
It was just as well for England that the pair chose this day/night encounter to display their combined powers. When Flintoff joined Pietersen at the crease England were labouring on 113 for 3 in the 29th over. Both were watchful to begin with: Flintoff took 20 balls to find the boundary for the first time; Pietersen's first four came off the 52nd delivery he faced. As the pair pondered, England went through a 167-run period in which they struck just a solitary boundary.
But once the pair had decided to open their shoulders there was little South Africa could do about it. Boundaries were struck with regularity and a capacity crowd revelled in the strokeplay. Flintoff's game was predictably power-based with the all-rounder smashing the majority of his nine boundaries hard down the ground. His quest to score a hundred ended when Dale Steyn bowled him in the penultimate over of the innings.
Pietersen has greater dexterity and his innings was a combination of great touch and frightening power. When the England captain was not looking to smite the ball down the ground he would walk across his stumps and flick it to the vacant fine-leg area for four. The skill of the man drove Andre Nel to distraction. Pietersen was left needing to strike boundaries off the final three balls of the innings to post a seventh one-day hundred but on this occasion the challenge was, surprisingly, too much for him.
South Africa's approach in the opening overs of a one-day innings is in stark contrast to England's. The type of pitch the players are accustomed to moulds the differing attitudes: English batsmen tend to play most of their cricket on surfaces which inhibit aggressive strokeplay against the new ball.
Survival, rather than capitalising on fielding restrictions, is the first priority for many batsmen in these conditions, and England adopted such a policy yesterday, reaching 78 for 1 in the opening 20 overs. South Africans are brought up on more batsman-friendly pitches and look to take the game to the opposition. By the end of the 20th over they had accelerated to 108 for 2.
But their subsequent loss of wickets meant that England's strategy of having batsmen in hand for a slog in the final 15 overs won the day. It worked here; but it is not an approach that wins major tournaments.
England won toss
I R Bell c de Villiers b Kallis 35
†M J Prior c de Villiers b Kallis 42
O A Shah c Philander b Botha 12
*K P Pietersen not out 90
A Flintoff b Steyn 78
L J Wright not out 2
Extras (b4, lb5, w6, nb1) 16
Total (for 4, 50 overs) 275
Fall: 1-77 2-86 3-113 4-271.
Did not bat: R S Bopara, S R Patel, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, S J Harmison.
Bowling: Steyn 10-0-67-1; Ntini 9-0-38-0; Nel 10-1-53-0; Kallis 5-0-25-2; Botha 7-0-33-1; Philander 9-0-50-0.
H H Gibbs b Patel 37
*G C Smith c Prior b S J Harmison 21J H Kallis run out 52
A B de Villiers c Bell b Pietersen 24
J P Duminy c Prior b S J Harmison 18
†M V Boucher st Prior b Pietersen 16
J Botha c sub b Broad 26
V D Philander run out 23
A Nel b Flintoff 10
D W Steyn not out 3
M Ntini b Flintoff 2
Extras (b4 lb8 w11) 23
Total (49.4 overs) 255
Fall: 1-50 2-93 3-142 4-149 5-168 6-202 7-219 8-245 9-249.
Bowling: Broad 10-0-61-1; Anderson 3-0-18-0; S J Harmison 10-1-43-2; Flintoff 9.4-1-46-2; Patel 10-0-42-1; Bopara 2-0-11-0; Pietersen 5-0-22-2.
England win by 20 runs
Umpires: I J Gould (Eng) and S J A Taufel (Aus).