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Kevin who? Strauss's boys prove there is life beyond Pietersen

Nobody in the England dressing room was thinking about the dropped batsman and it showed with a spirited team performance

Dear KP, hope you are enjoying your holiday. We neither wish you were here, nor wish your return. These were words unspoken. No one in the England dressing room at Lord's was talking or thinking of Kevin Pietersen yesterday. The message was conveyed in the response of this team to the demands made of it.

This was the day England chose to remind the world of their No 1 ranking. They may yet lose that station, but they would not let it go without demonstrating their worth against the team vying for the honour.

Five defeats in 10 Tests ahead of this contest is a statistic that is in one sense anomalous, given that three losses came in alien territory, the United Arab Emirates, on the back of nil preparation, and in another reflects the turbulent air in which England have been working courtesy of our Kev.

Cricket is unusual among team games in the responsibility and scrutiny it places upon the individual. Though 11 take the field, the result is effectively an aggregation of singular contributions. This is not the case in other moving-ball games, where measurement of performance is much more subjective. A blob on the batsman's scorecard is a brutal and irrefutable assessment, as is a wicketless analysis served up by a bowler.

That said, this is not a game that reduces simply to figures. Swirling around the statistical maelstrom is that great unquantifiable bonding agent we call team spirit, camaraderie, chemistry beyond the reach of science. We intuit its presence in the instinctive behaviour of players, in their responses to key moments in the game.

When A B de Villiers holed out to Alastair Cook at third slip off the bowling of Jimmy Anderson for the fifth wicket, the England vice-captain was engulfed not only in a tangle of brotherly arms but excitable affection. Embracing Pietersen had become as inviting as retrieving the ball from a bed of nettles which, of course, results in a rather nasty rash. This freedom from the tyranny of the one was evident in all that England did.

South Africa were four down with lunch still 15 minutes away. Having won the toss and batted, they were suddenly playing cricket under pressure. This was not the same game they experienced at The Oval.

The ball had not changed dimension but they were no longer seeing it like the beach variety. The humid, cloudy conditions were probably helpful, though the ball was not deviating appreciably though the air. And providence was certainly on England's side with the questionable dismissals of Alviro Petersen and Jacques Kallis via the referral system when neither appeared to have touched the ball with a glove holding a bat.

There seemed to be a unity and togetherness about the group that underpinned the effort. The commentator, David Lloyd, astutely observed this in the cheerleading quality of Matt Prior as the teams left the field at lunch. There was in every back patted vindication of his point. It had been a mighty session for England.

Prior was validating the Pietersen-free project. The full sense of what might be possible will only be determined over time and, in this match, when England have batted, but so far so good. And what must Pietersen have been thinking, wherever he is sunning himself?

The circumstances of this match, the world's top two Test nations duelling for supremacy at, of all places, Lord's, cricket's high temple, mocked Pietersen's sense of himself as a special case. The house was full, the audience gripped. It is precisely this kind of crucible that determines who shall be considered great. And he was nowhere near it. That had to hurt one as vainglorious as he.

The rain around which we have danced for much of this summer arrived as the players went to their lunch and had cleared quickly enough to permit a resumption within the hour. Even the weather patterns were lining up in England's corner. And Alice Cooper. School might well be out but none could recall at a cricket gig of any sort an appearance by the ancient Anglophile from Detroit.

Alice hangs on gamely, and perhaps even more convincingly to the death look he sported in his youth. The heavy accent on black from head to toe prevails, suggesting that, on this occasion at least, his diversion around the sights of London might take in Highgate Cemetery, not to tour the tombstones but to pick one.

Yohan Blake was also in the house, and was a more willing participant. The heir to Usain Bolt's sprint kingdom was introduced to the audience at tea, telling us of his attachment to this game, and of his prowess. At his home in Kingston, a bowling machine serves him 90mph deliveries for breakfast. He slings down the ball, with equal alacrity, when invited to do so by the Kingston club at Sabina Park. When asked if it were true that he and Bolt would be participating in the Big Bash, Australia's T20 franchise, this winter, "The Beast" did not demur.

Out in the middle, as the ball softened and the pitch flattened, South Africa's middle order began to enjoy a comparative degree of control.

First De Villiers and Jacques Rudolph, and then J P Duminy and Vernon Philander presented straight bats to good balls and smashed anything benign, racking up 50 partnerships for the fifth, sixth and seventh wickets. None of this disturbed English rhythm. The captain, Andrew Strauss, was at pains to tell us that the negativity surrounding England's prospects, sans Pietersen, in this crucial encounter was not shared by the players.

The doubters understood little about his team, he said. At some point today, Strauss will have the opportunity to underscore that view when he leads England's response with the bat in his 100th Test. He knows a big score is the requirement. A daddy hundred would be nice. Unlike Pietersen, he does not care who delivers it.


Facts in figures

49 Lord's Test wickets for James Anderson – the third highest.

5.75 Jacques Kallis' Test average in four innings at Lord's.

175 Test dismissals by Matt Prior – the fourth most by an Englishman.

9-37 Graham Onions' figures at Trent Bridge for Durham after leaving Lord's.