Pietersen the Englishman with a touch of Afrikaans

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The Independent Online

As he tosses the coin to signal the start of proceedings in the fourth Test today, Kevin Pietersen's life may flash before him. In the few seconds before the pound falls to earth – it is usually a pound though it would not be entirely beyond England's new captain to have had something minted specially – there will be time for the magnitude of all he has done to descend with it.

Pietersen will be in the centre of The Oval as a South African leading another team against South Africa. It is always The Oval: the ground was already the scene of the event and the innings that changed his life forever when in 2005 he scored 158 to ensure the Ashes were regained. Next to him today will be his rival captain, Graeme Smith, essentially his compatriot.

It is indubitable that Pietersen is as proud as an Olympic flag carrier to have been made captain of England. But he has still spent more than two-thirds of his life in South Africa. If there is to be any Afrikaans spoken by the captains during the post-toss interviews, Pietersen will be much the more fluent. Indeed his father Jannie, interviewed in one of the Afrikaans language papers in South Africa yesterday said of Kevin: "He speaks better Afrikaans than I do."

The images that pass by in those moments when the coin flips through the air will contain recollections of his boyhood, of the seminal decision to leave his homeland for a better and more rewarding life. But he would not be human (and Pietersen is very human indeed) if he did not think also of what might have been and of the effect all this is having on South Africans in South Africa.

Smith has never been short of an opinion about Pietersen's decision to leave South Africa and the elevation to the post of captain, still possessing almost mystical status in English society, has taken the whole issue a step further. As Smith said, guests at a South African embassy in London function the other night "were not happy about it at all".

If anybody but South Africa were the opponents the occasion would not have quite the same resonance. There have been plenty of non-English born captains of England – 16 of the 78 if you count the two Welshmen and the Scot, and two from South Africa – but not quite in these circumstances.

But beyond the toss, should anybody be able to handle this match and the years ahead, it is the man who likes still to be known as KP, though Kevin will probably be more the order of the day in the immediate future and Sir Kevin is by no means entirely to be discounted on a far horizon. He will already have outlined his vision to the team. In that regard, among recent captains, he probably most closely resembles Nasser Hussain. He will not be afraid to invoke inner feelings. He will be passionate.

There is no question whatever that he will be an active captain and may make Michael Vaughan's tendency to wave his arms, change the bowling and alter the field look like a serious case of inertia. On the other hand Pietersen's tactical nous is open to question, largely because he has never had to show any.

He has never been a long-term captain before because his abrasive and confident personality did not make him captaincy material. But that was said of Hussain and he turned out to be an extremely capable captain of England. Pietersen's sole experiences of the job so far were for Nottinghamshire II against Lancashire II at Farnsfield in July 2002 and this June, for England against New Zealand in a one-day international at Lord's. He scored 113 not out in the first in a winning cause and six in the second in a losing one, so presumably the jury is split at present on whether captaincy affects his batting.

Whatever happens at The Oval (and defeat is a distinct possibility) it will not tell us much about whether Pietersen will be a success. But teams need different types of captain at different times and while they might have been short of choice, the selectors, in picking the man from Pietermaritzburg, have got somebody different all right.

Five-day Oval weather forecast


Mostly cloudy with a slight breeze. Possibility of some light showers. Max temp 22C


Generally warm and sunny. 21C


Dark and overcast, with possibility of some heavy showers during the afternoon. 18C


Breezy and cloudy with sunny intervals and scattered showers. 22C


Predominately sunny. Some clouds but should stay dry. 22C

*PITCH REPORT The pitch has more grass on it than usual so will not be quite as hard, fast and bouncy.