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Final Test: Jaded England need Pietersen's leading edge

Skipper faces tough choices on and off field as weather frustrates efforts to dismiss South Africa. By Stephen Brenkley at The Oval

It is much too early to tell how England might fare under their new management. But so much is expected of Kevin Pietersen, so many opinions have already been expressed about how it will end (in tears is the odds-on favourite despite the total lack of supporting evidence) that premature judgement is almost obligatory.

The third day of his coming – it feels like a coming more than an appointment – was the least satisfactory so far. It had no chance, of course. On the first day, South Africa were bowled out for 194 and Pietersen seemed like a miracle worker who barely had to lay on his hands. On the second, he scored a hundred, only the third man to do so in his maiden innings as England captain. Something had to give.

The third day was taken out of Pietersen's hands – although there are those who wouldinsist that it could have been done only with his collusion with whom he calls the man upstairs – as it was restricted to 17.5 miserable overs. The predicted rain halted proceedings 15 minutes before lunch, the latest in a litany of Saturdays to be affected this summer. South Africa had added 73 for the loss of their second wicket, England had not bowled as well as they or their new captain had a right to expect. Stuart Broad took the wicket, bowling Neil McKenzie off an inside edge.

With two days remaining, England are 12 runs ahead and they will not wish to chase many more than 200 in the fourth innings of the Fourth Test to consider themselves in the box seat. Their batting remains much too fragile for optimism, which will merely prolong the debate about whether there should be four bowlers or five, where Andrew Flintoff should bat and who should be wicketkeeper. Who would be a selector? Well, not the present lot for four, it would seem.

If he did not know it before, Pietersen will be fully aware by now that England have receded since 2005. They are becoming as dependent on him as asickly child on its mother. In three of their last seven victories, he has scored hundreds. He may be about to make it four out of eight.

The effect of captaincy on his own batting remains to be seen, but the early indications are that he will not be remotely compromised. He batted on Friday as he has batted throughout his career and the manner of his brutal pulling in the early afternoon briefly took you back to the same place at another time.

But a few matches down the line it may be different, when the magnitude of the task becomes crystal clear and the daily grind of lifting bowlers, changing bowlers, cursing bloody bowlers takes its toll. England's batsmen have been fitful for long enough and while complacency might be an indictment too far they are being permitted a self-satisfaction which has become dangerous to the well-being of the team.

Pietersen will not be short of an opinion in altering this and the development of his captaincy will be as closely scrutinised as his first week in the job. So far, he has utterly belied the opinion that he would be an arm-waving, in your face captain. Quite the reverse but in his relative inactivity, he has clearly been keen to ask bowlers what they want – as if bowlers know. What bowler, for instance, can bowl to Pietersen in full flow? They need external guidance.

The relationship with his two fastest bowlers, Stephen Harmison and Flintoff, will be fascinating. Harmison and Flintoff are friends. Harmison has exasperated captains before, not least Flintoff in Australia two winters ago. Pietersen has opted for a policy of soft love. He has done everything but stroke Harmison gently on the head over three days.

Yesterday, Harmison (and Jimmy Anderson) responded by allowing the batsmen to leave too many balls, while also feeding the excellent Hashim Amla's ravenous cut stroke. Harmison was fast but not furious, Anderson swinging but not dangerous. Sometime, soft love must turn to tough love and then the riot act will have to be read.

Pietersen's life away from the field will often cease to be his own. Doubtless and rightfully he will be regularly involved with the England and Wales Cricket Board's management of the team. The ECB have had a limp couple of weeks and their bullish announcement of a welcome £300m television deal with Sky and Five, starting in 2010, hardly disguised manifold recent reverses.

They have been put firmly in their place by India despite protestations to the contrary and have neither the trust nor the support of some of their biggest clubs. They still must decide what to do about the Champions League, a tournament supposed to be worth £2.5 million but which may still not take place, and the participation of their players in the Indian Premier League next year.

It may help having Pietersen as captain because his status will make him think twice before going anywhere. His advisers have been sound in the past and presumably they are astute enough to recognise that it is not only the ECB who would not take kindly to their captain swanning off elsewhere. Pietersen has to win the trust of his players and the public, who already adore him. Keeping it will then be the key.

Oval scoreboard

South Africa won the toss

South Africa – First Innings 194

England – First Innings 316 (K P Pietersen 100, P D Collingwood 61; M Ntini 5-94)

South Africa – Second Innings (Overnight 37-1)

N D McKenzie b Broad (58 balls, 4 fours) 29

H M Amla not out (86 balls, 14 fours) 71

J H Kallis not out (14 balls) 2

Extras (b6, nb2) 8

Total (2 wkts; 26.5 overs) 110

Fall (cont): 2-82 (McKenzie).

To Bat: A G Prince, A B de Villiers, †M V Boucher, M Morkel, P L Harris, A Nel, M Ntini.

Bowling: Anderson 8-2-31-1, Harmison 9-0-34-0, Flintoff 5-0-29-0, Panesar 1-1-0-0, Broad 3.5-2-10-1.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and S J Davis (Aus).

South Africa lead series 2-0

First Test, Lord's: England drew with South Africa.

Second Test, Headingley: South Africa won by by 10 wickets.

Third Test, Edgbaston: South Africa won by five wickets.

Remaining fixtures:

20 Aug: Twenty20 International, Riverside

22 Aug: 1st One-day international, Headingley

26 Aug: 2nd ODI, Trent Bridge

29 Aug: 3rd ODI, The Oval

31 Aug: 4th ODI, Lord's

3 Sept: 5th ODI, Cardiff