To assert that Kevin Pietersen is back may be a trifle premature. An innings of 71 on a gentle pitch against a side many of whose members looked as though they had popped in for a knockabout on the way to scout camp does not constitute a fully fledged return to the apex of the game.
But in East London yesterday, Pietersen took the bull by the horns. He was short of runs and he needed time at the crease before the Test series begins against South Africa on Wednesday. He ensured he got both.
There was no question that he would perish wondering. He hit his second ball to the extra cover boundary and his third crashingly straight for four. Two hours later when he pulled a ball in the air to deep mid-wicket where he was duly caught, Pietersen had played himself into something approaching form.
The innings lasted 101 balls and he will feel that they represented time well spent. Wednesday will bring a new set of much different challenges – his first Test match in his home country against an ace side – but he will feel slightly more relaxed going into it with this behind him.
"That probably was the most pleasing aspect of the day," said England's coach, Andy Flower. "Kev has been out of cricket and not scoring heavily recently. Getting time in the middle was vital for him I think. As his innings progressed he looked more balanced and assured."
Nothing can do for a batsman what time in the middle does, with bowlers coming from both ends and fields properly set.
England are preparing in a bizarre fashion for the series with two two-day matches against the South Africa Invitation XI, an assembly of promising and not so promising players, their only long-form cricket.
The tourists will have to make do as best they can and all the batsmen yesterday were aware of the importance of rediscovering the correct tempo. The first four batsmen in the order all made half-centuries and England declared their innings at 317 for five with two overs of the day nominally left.
"This is the preparation we were given and I think we have made the most of it so far," Flower said. "We would have preferred a bouncier pitch but they have done a good job in getting this ground ready for us. You can see all sorts of the things they were working on, the change in tempo from Twenty20 and one-day cricket to Test cricket, the way you move, the way you think. I thought the opposition did well and ran in all day and gave us good practice."
But it did not replicate in any way what they will face in the weeks ahead. Only two of the wickets to fall were legitimately taken, those of Pietersen and Ian Bell, who was bowled off an inside edge late in the day. The other three were all gifted to the opposition under the retired out regulation and in truth it was always the most probable way for the raw Invitation XI to send the opposition batsmen on their way.
Andrew Strauss made a polished 100 before walking off, having raised his bat to non-existent onlookers. Until lunch he had been accompanied by Alastair Cook. The strangest innings of the day was played by Jonathan Trott who spent 135 balls over his 50, the first eight coming from 71.
Against such a modest attack it looked odd, it was odd, but Trott, in his thoroughly single-minded way, had decided that he had to bat in a certain fashion to ready himself for next week. He was practising the leave and the block because they will be important parts of his armoury.
England will bowl today and all eyes will be on the leader of their attack, Jimmy Anderson. His troublesome knee appears to be less troublesome but only two or three spells on full throttle will determine the immediate future of his tour.
As the tension mounts for next Wednesday, South Africa have their own difficulties. All-rounder Jacques Kallis is struggling to recover from his broken rib and his use of an oxygen chamber does not augur well. Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, said: "He has felt a lot better. But we won't know until we put him through proper training, bowling proper spells and batting for a length of time.
If Jacques is available to bat only, he most certainly will do that." But batting only still leaves a team to balance. England, short of proper cricket as they are, will not be displeased.
East London: Scoreboard
South Africa XI v England (Buffalo Park) First day of two
South African Airways XI won toss
England have reached 317 with five first-innings wickets still standing
England – First Innings
*A J Strauss retd out: 100
A N Cook retd out: 52
I J L Trott retd out: 50
K P Pietersen c van Wyk b Vallie: 71
I R Bell b Eccles: 8
†M J Prior not out: 19
L J Wright not out: 1
Extras (b5 lb1 w2 nb8): 16
Total (for 5, 88 overs): 317
Fall: 1-101 2-169 3-274 4-293 5-304
To bat: P D Collingwood, S C J Broad, G P Swann, R J Sidebottom, J M Anderson.
Bowling: Myoli 16-1-82-0; Eccles 16-0-79-1; Weise 17-4-40-0; Pietersen 12-2-41-0; Adams 13-5-14-0; Vallie 7-1-32-1; Bossenger 7-0-23-0.
South Africas XI: A P Agathagelou, D van Wyk, S E Avontuur M Y Vallie, *W Bossenger, C Pietersen, D Weise, K Eccles, †M Mosehle, R A Adams, A Myoli.
Umpires: S George and B G Jerling.
England's remaining fixtures: Wednesday: First Test (Centurion). Saturday 26 December: Second Test (Durban). Sunday 3 January: Third Test (Cape Town). Thursday 14 January: Fourth Test (Johannesburg).Reuse content