One-day wonders: Pietersen wins battle but the war is far from over
Sunday 24 August 2008
Some words of warning for England. They have been in this place often before only to find it leading nowhere. To summon an example, almost at random, they defeated South Africa in the first match of the last series the sides played and were eventually hammered.
For years, running now into decades, they have flattered to deceive in one-day cricket. For a similar period they seem to have found a game plan and then discarded it. Put another way, England might have beaten South Africa by 20 runs in Headingley on Friday night but they ain't won nothin' yet.
It was reassuring to hear the words of Kevin Pietersen in the immediate afterglow of that victory. This is still the embryonic period of his captaincy of England but the early signs are that he has what it takes in all departments. He performed wonderfully as a batsman, together with Andrew Flintoff, digging his team out of a hole they had excavated themselves in a familiar pattern. It did not seem as though he played as swashbucklingly as in his vintage innings but none the less his 90 took only 82 balls.
Pietersen then bowled his occasional off-spin when he felt there was a need to bowl and struck immediately. His changes inevitably worked and you could almost hear his thought processes. He inspired himself and elicited the most emphatic response from his players. There seemed to be a genuine affection.
And then after England had got home by 20 runs – not as easy as it sounded – he was pitch perfect. He rightly praised the individuals but was reluctant to move into hyperbolic gear on the overall nature of the victory and what it might mean.
Of Flintoff he said: "The man is a superstar. Some people are born into this world who are just superstars and the ability he has with that cricket ball is just second to none, absolutely phenomenal." This is what Flintoff would have wanted to hear, although his figures of 2 for 46 were hardly remarkable.
Years ago, at the start of his career, Flintoff scored a glorious, match-winning 80 against Pakistan in Karachi and was befuddled and hurt when the captain, Nasser Hussain, was decidedly restrained in his praise. Hussain did not get much wrong as England captain but he misjudged his man there. Flintoff is a titanic performer but he is human too and likes to be told how good he is every so often.
As if the return of one conquering hero were not enough, Pietersen has ensnared another in Stephen Harmison. The big fella, as he likes to call him, bowled ferociously in his first one-day match for almost two years and Pietersen was cock-a-hoop that he had lured him back to the team. "This is the stage he belongs on," said the captain. "Not playing for Durham in front of 34 people, but in front of 34,000, 40,000 or 50,000, that's where Steve Harmison belongs."
Apart from the thought that Durham might quibble at the size of their audience they are purported to attract, this made the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. In its way, it was Hussain at his finest. But it was Pietersen. Then came his clinical assessment of the team.
"There's some positive stuff happening in English cricket at the moment but there's no point getting ahead of ourselves because we start every series well. We always win the first game and mess the next four up. The key to this victory is to make sure we focus on Tuesday and turn up with the same energy, buzz and confidence." The perfect analysis of the state of affairs.
There remain flaws in England's cricket. They have still not deduced a method of using the power plays to their advantage. If the middle order comes off in style every time, it might not matter but it is lacklustre cricket. The main shortcoming is the failure to work out quickly how a particular pitch is playing.
South Africa will try to come back hard because they are still playing to overtake Australia at No 1 in the rankings. But the feeling persists that in winning the Test series they did what they came to do this summer. If England can win in Nottingham on Tuesday, Pietersen might really have something to say.
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