Kevin Pietersen has spent the initial 18 days of his reign as England captain on the front foot. Every decision Pietersen has made, whether it be picking a five-man bowling attack for The Oval Test against South Africa or persuading Steve Harmison out of one-day retirement, has been a positive one.
Harmison was last night called into the squad for today's first one-day international against South Africa in place of Ryan Sidebottom, who has failed to recover from a niggling hip injury. "After recently being asked by the England management to reassess my retirement from international one-day cricket I've decided to join England's squad after careful consideration," said Harmison. "It's something I have been thinking about for a period of time and due to recent injuries in the England camp the opportunity has arisen for me to play a role in this series."
For all Harmison's return, Pietersen's positive intent will be severely tested over the next fortnight, during which England are scheduled to play five one-day matches against South Africa, arguably the best limited-over team in the world. To state that England's recent one-day cricket has been mediocre would be extremely generous – they have won six of their last 19 games. South Africa have won 16 out of 19.
The form guide does not suggest England will enjoy the NatWest Series but Pietersen's side can enter the tournament with hope. On paper the England team that played against Scotland on Monday looks good. The prospect of Stuart Broad batting at 10 underlines how deep the batting order is, while Ravi Bopara and Luke Wright give Pietersen plenty of options on the bowling front.
South Africa's state of mind may work in England's favour too. Graeme Smith, the Proteas captain, accepted yesterday that his players have found it hard to get motivated since achieving the tour goal of winning a Test series in England.
Headingley, the venue for this evening's opening day-night encounter, is a ground that historically helps bowlers but England's leather throwers are unlikely to arrive with positive memories. On their last two visits to Leeds England's bowlers have surrendered 648 runs at the alarming rate of 7.4 runs an over. A repeat performance would give Pietersen's man management skills an early test.
Andrew Flintoff did not play in either of the maulings handed out by Sri Lanka and India and his return is the source of great optimism. Monday's game in Edinburgh highlighted just how difficult it is to bat against him. Scotland's batsmen had little idea of how to deal with 88mph thunderbolts that whistle past the chest or toes. South Africa's classier batsmen will have similar problems.
"Our preparation has been hindered by the weather but we are ready," said Flintoff enthusiastically. "I don't believe the team will struggle for motivation: this team is a different team to the Test side that won at The Oval. There are a lot of lads who want to impress and cement spots in the side.
"There is a freshness about the side, especially since Kevin [Pietersen] has taken over as captain. In the past week there has been a real nice feel around the camp. Kevin is very enthusiastic about doing it and I can't see why he won't be a successful captain for a while.
"South Africa are the form side in the world at the moment: they have beaten everyone they have played. It will be tough. But we have to test ourselves against these sides. We have beaten the best sides in the world but we have to start beating them over a period of time, not just in one-off games."
With Sidebottom and Chris Tremlett injured, and Paul Collingwood's serving the final game of his four-match ban, England will be picking from 14 players. England are expected to make one change to the team that played in Edinburgh, with Graeme Swann returning ahead of Samit Patel.
Tim Bresnen took 2 for 34 against Scotland and the 23-year-old will be looking to show his home crowd that his last display for England in England, when he bowled two overs for 29 against Sri Lanka in 2006, was an off-day.
South Africa will be weakened by the absence of Albie Morkel, who is struggling to overcome a ligament injury in his right shoulder. There is a genuine fear that he will not play in the series. Vernon Philander, an all-rounder who played for Middlesex earlier this summer, will replace him.
Smith is suffering with tennis elbow in his right arm too, although he has promised to soldier on. If South Africa fail to raise themselves from their torpor England may well provide their supporters with an unexpected reason to celebrate.
Probable teams for Headingley
K P Pietersen (c), I R Bell, M J Prior (wkt), O A Shah, A Flintoff, R S Bopara, L J Wright, GP Swann, T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, J M Anderson
G C Smith (c), H H Gibbs, J H Kallis, A B de Villiers, J P Duminy, M V Boucher (wkt), V D Philander, J Botha, M Morkel, D W Steyn, M Ntini.
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