When Kevin Pietersen arrived in Durban yesterday it was not quite the return of the conquering hero. It has become easy lately, maybe fashionable, to overlook his status as England's best batsman.
A long absence from the side, during which they won the Ashes and reached the Champions Trophy semi-finals, has been followed by a comeback which, thus far, has been replete with failure. While Pietersen is struggling, there is a new kid on the block, Jonathan Trott, another batsman of South African origins, who cannot stop scoring runs.
It is unfamiliar territory for Pietersen. Nobody is saying that he is not the player he was, but nor is he the player he should be. Perhaps a dose of the familiar air in KwaZulu Natal where he spent the first 19 years of his life and the reunion with his wife, Jessica, who joined him from England yesterday, will provide a dual tonic.
"I thought he might be a little rusty," said England coach, Andy Flower, unperturbed by Pietersen's lack of runs. "Four months is a long time off when you're used to playing cricket all the time, so we have to be patient with him. He is impatient because he's a high achiever and an outstanding sportsman. I am sure he will score heavy runs at some stage on this tour."
Pietersen's scores in his five innings since returning, all in limited-overs matches, have been 29, 4, 4, 45 and 3. He has chosen all manner of ways to get out, culminating in a tame clip to midwicket as England won by seven wickets to take a 2-1 lead in the one-day series on Sunday in Port Elizabeth.
Nor has his passage been eased by the response of the crowds. Although, as Flower said, their treatment of Pietersen has had an element of hissing the pantomime villain, each of his walks to the crease has been accompanied by boos. In Port Elizabeth it was particularly vitriolic.
"I think he is used to that sort of reaction and I don't think it affects him," Flower said. "It's really disappointing. I didn't like hearing boos when Ricky Ponting walked out to bat in England in the summer, I don't like hearing boos when someone is taking a conversion in rugby and I think it's sad to hear the booing of a great cricketer walking out to compete for his country."
The odd rumour has surfaced that Pietersen is still feeling the effects of the Achilles injury which forced him to withdraw from the Ashes after two Test matches and entailed surgery.
His return was severely delayed when the wound became infected. But he is running with freedom and no apparent discomfort and Flower said he was working as hard as anybody on tour.
England, however, are past masters at concealing the extent of players' injuries and the concern about them. Flower revealed yesterday that although the fast bowler Jimmy Anderson's right knee is now rapidly recovering (as demonstrated by his 5 for 23 on Sunday) there had been fears 10 days ago that he might have to be withdrawn completely from the series.
If the combination of KwaZulu Natal and Mrs Pietersen do not do the trick for Pietersen, then maybe the impending arrival of Graham Gooch as England's part-time specialist batting coach will help. Pietersen, a perfectionist, could well respond to the advice of the great former England batsman.
Flower said: "I have got the utmost respect for Graham Gooch. I find it hard in my new position to give the time that's needed to the batsmen. I need some help in that regard and I couldn't ask for better help than Graham."Reuse content