England v S.A: Pietersen continues impressive start to reign

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Kevin Pietersen's ability to provide an instant impact as England's new captain was maintained with an all-round display to inspire an unlikely victory in the opening match of the NatWest Series tonight.

Since taking over as captain of all England's senior teams, Pietersen has already inspired a final Test victory at the Oval over the previously dominant South Africans, provoking irritated reaction in Australia by claiming his new side would win the Ashes if they continued that level of performance.

He has also demonstrated his great powers of persuasion to tempt Steve Harmison into reversing his decision to retire from one-day international cricket and answer England's call to end his two-year exile and return for the five-match series.

But perhaps his greatest feat since taking on the responsibility of captain has been to inspire an unlikely victory under the lights at Headingley tonight as England cruised to a 20-run victory.

Any worries about the captaincy affecting his performance were lifted by a brilliant century at the Oval and underlined even more emphatically today with a brilliant 90 off 82 balls to rescue England from a pedestrian start to their innings and reach 274 for four.

His performance with the ball, however, was even more unexpected and he helped remove three of South Africa's key batsmen - Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Mark Boucher - with his under-used off-spin just as the tourists looked on course to complete a convincing triumph.

He also demonstrated an uncanny knack of choosing the right time - and the right bowler - to make a change in the attack with himself, Harmison and Samit Patel all claiming wickets in their first overs.

Pietersen's display masked another worrying start to the innings by England, who were only rescued by a brilliant 158-run stand off 129 balls between the new captain and all-rounder Andrew Flintoff that made amends for a desperately slow start.

Having won the toss and decided the to bat first, Pietersen would have wanted England to demonstrate the same aggressive cricket which had been so successful during the final Test but instead they struggled for most of the innings to score at an acceptable rate.

That battle to score boundaries was typified by Ian Bell, who was partnered with Matt Prior at the top of the order and failed to score a single boundary in 69 balls before falling for 35 having used up 20 overs of the innings.

Prior was more aggressive in his stance and his five fours and a six were the only boundaries hit by any England batsman for the first 35 overs until Flintoff finally broke a sequence of 98 balls without a boundary.

Both of England's openers perished in identical circumstances, driving Kallis to point, while Owais Shah made just 12 in his new role at number three before holing out in the deep attempting a slog sweep.

At 113 for three in the 29th over when Flintoff joined his new captain at the crease, England were in danger of subsiding to a modest total if their two big-hitters were also unable to break South Africa's stranglehold.

Knowing the consequences if they also failed, both players were unusually circumspect with Flintoff taking 20 balls to record the first boundary in 13 overs when he stepped away to hit Dale Steyn through extra cover.

Pietersen was equally cautious and took 52 balls to register his first boundary, a pull for four when off-spinner Johan Botha delivered a full toss, but still reached his half-century off only 55 balls.

Flintoff, without a half-century since hitting an unbeaten 72 against New Zealand at Hobart 22 one-day internationals ago, ended that sequence by reaching a superb 78 off 70 balls including nine fours before being bowled by Steyn in the final over of the innings.

Facing a competitive target, South Africa approached their chase in a vastly different manner to England's with openers Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith racing to a 50 partnership in only eight overs.

Continuing the theme of his captaincy, however, Pietersen's decision to remove James Anderson from the attack after his first three overs cost 18 runs and replace him with Harmison earned immediate rewards.

Two years after conceding 97 runs off 10 overs in his previous England one-day appearance at Headingley against Sri Lanka, this time Harmison found his rhythm from the start and struck with his fourth ball to have Smith caught behind.

Another bowling change eight overs later had a similar effect with Patel, playing his first major international, justifying his selection ahead of Nottinghamshire team-mate Graeme Swann by bowling Gibbs as he attempted to cut his fourth delivery.

Inevitably, though, Pietersen made the biggest impact and after bringing himself on as part of a spin partnership with Patel, induced de Villiers into a clip to mid-wicket and provoked enough panic for Kallis to run himself out after hitting 52 off 69 balls.

Any hopes of a South African recovery were ended with Boucher, one of the cleanest hitters in their side, being stumped pushing forward to Pietersen to effectively settle the outcome as South Africa's innings capitulated with the rising run-rate to 255 all out.