One-Day Series: Pietersen seeks a method amid all the usual madness

Selectors' merry-go-round hinders England's quest for consistency in limited-overs circus

According to the official rankings England are sixth in the world at one-day cricket. Or, to put it another way, they are hopeless. If it were not for the presence of their new captain, Kevin Pietersen, it might be worse.

Not only is he the side's best player, he is now also responsible for transforming a team of underachieving, bewildered and often bewitched players. His primary task will be to tellthem what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be going.

That sounds straightforward enough, but it has eluded most of his 27 predecessors, including the most recent, Paul Collingwood, who was eventually undone by a combination of form, ill-discipline and probably the knowledge that he was born to offer advice, not to put it into practice. Pietersen's opening challenge could hardly be more daunting. South Africa are ranked second and they and Australia are well ahead of the rest. The tourists know exactly what they are doing and how to do it.

England's medium-term plan – the England and Wales Cricket Board come up with more five-year plans than the former USSR, though with considerably less attention to detail or success – is to build a team who can win a major international competition. But that was the plan before the last World Cup, before the one before that and before the one before that. Oh, and before the one before that.

In the past four World Cups, England have performed wretchedly. Their showing has been similar in the Champions Trophy, save for an appearance in the final on home soil four years ago when, in late September, they were able to demonstrate to other teams the precise techniques necessary to play cricket in thermal underwear.

The immediate aim, part of the overall endeavour, is to beat South Africa in the series of five one-day internationals which begins at Headingley next Friday. By way of a warm-up they have a canter against Scotland in Edinburgh on Monday and a Twenty20 in Durham against South Africa on Wednesday.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the home side's chances in any case. Scotland should be overwhelmed, but that is a prospect which confronts England thereafter. As they have for so long, they continue to take one step forwards and then one back.

Around this time last year, for instance, they slugged it out with India and eventually won the deciding match to take a pulsating series 4-3. Then came a 3-2 series victory in Sri Lanka, their most heartening exhibition for 20 years.

Unfortunately, this has been followed by successive salutary 3-1 defeats to New Zealand. There is nothing wrong in losing regularly at cricket to New Zealand (actually there is, and rectifying it might prompt another five-year plan), but the manner of defeat showed that England are still at one-day sixes and sevens.

They still seem uncertain of what their approach should be: whether to develop a system and ensure the players can make it work or to pick the players and hope a method emerges. There is no sign that they are any nearer to resolving that.

In the abject run against New Zealand earlier this season, their opening batsmen – the pair who set the pattern in any limited-overs format – were Ian Bell and Luke Wright. In the last game Cook took over from Wright.

In the 10 matches last winter, Cook and Philip Mustard – remember him? – formed the partnership, and in the match that clinched the thrilling series against India last season, Wright and Matthew Prior walked to the wicket. Confused? The selectors embrace confusion as if it were a close family member.

Prior has rightly been recalled as wicketkeeper-batsman, which means Tim Ambrose has been dropped after five underwhelming matches. Since Ambrose was initially picked (in place of Mustard) because the selectors said they wanted to unify the keeping position, this is perplexing. Unless Ambrose ought to start thinking of himself as a former Test player too.

It is now up to Pietersen and the coach, Peter Moores, to decide what will work. The captain's position at No 3 will influence his tactical thinking: pinch-hitting or conventional innings-building.

England have never understood what pinch-hitting means, mistaking it for slogging instead of something much more cultured. When they have gone the conventional route, they have also tended to panic when it has not achieved the desired run-rate. While it is imperative to take advantage of power plays, the amount of runs availablein the last 10 overs, as long as wickets are in hand, should never be overlooked.

England have one potential new cap in the side in Samit Patel, a 23-year-old batting all-rounder who bowls orthodox slow left- arm. He has been a batsman of undoubted promise since he was a young teenager, but while his selection after no more than a reasonable one-day season was not a shock, nor was it timely.

Fourteen players qualified to play for England have scored more one-day runs this season and 15 have scored more in the Championship. He also looks overweight. Maybe there are reasons for this apart from eatingall the pies and avoiding the gym, and it is to be hoped the selectors investigated them properlybefore picking him.

The last time they picked a Nottinghamshire player (Darren Pattinson) it proved to be a disaster. Should Patel play, Nottinghamshire will have provided five England cricketers this season. South Africa to win comfortably – if not the T20 – unless Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff are both at the top of their games.