Pietersen's dazzling batting displays only mask England faults

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The Independent Online

The judgements after England's 4-1 defeat were swift, decisive and unsparing. There was obviously nothing else for it in the face of such an overwhelming loss to South Africa in the one-day series.

Michael Vaughan, the captain, went first. "You look at the way we were playing early last summer to where we are now and there are a lot of positives," he said. "We have moved on a hell of a lot. Put Freddie Flintoff back into our team and I'm very positive about the future of our one-day game."

Then came the coach, Duncan Fletcher. "We've learned more than on any other one-day tour. Every game barring one went down to the wire, there was some entertaining cricket. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Flintoff had played and their top all-rounders, Shaun Pollock or Jacques Kallis, had been out in the first three matches. We could have been 3-0 up."

Hold on, lads. The team have just been soundly beaten. Sure, some of the matches reached the final overs before a definite winner emerged but the biggest skill in one-day cricket is winning the close ones. England lost three of them and tied the other.

It is one thing to say that everything has come up roses, but another to airbrush the manure heap out of the big picture. Flintoff, who missed the one-day leg of the tour to have surgery on his ankle, is clearly viewed as a panacea.

There are good reasons for this but the danger is that England miss him so much that the rest of their game suffers accordingly. That must have been the case here because, as Fletcher was candid enough to concede, the top four batsmen all failed, mustering just two fifties between them in seven games, and the bowlers twice failed to defend big totals.

The two biggest assets to England have been the two new best buddies, Kevin Pietersen and Darren Gough. They have usually been together, they have usually had bizarre haircuts and they have invariably played outstandingly.

Pietersen's form, for an international novice, has defied belief. Only David Gower and Graeme Hick among England batsmen have scored three hundreds in a single one-day series before and they were not only much more experienced but were playing in triangular tournaments with many more matches.

As Fletcher acknowledged, he will be mighty hard to leave out of the Test team now. "For an individual to bat like that, you can't ignore him, he's got to come into the equation. He took on the South African crowd, he took on everyone. This is a boy who likes a contest. The key to it is that he's thinking things out, where you can hit it and how you can hit it there, that's the classic thing."

Given the way of things, the sense of expectation will now be huge every single time Pietersen goes to the crease. He may thrive on it.

Perhaps Pietersen's presence and friendship have helped to inspire Gough, who is at the other end of his career. He missed the last match with a virus and England missed him. He was on song throughout, his line was rigorous and his variations impeccable. He has shown a few critics a thing or two here.

Fletcher was making no wild claims about Gough's place in the World Cup in two years, not with that knee of his. But he could barely contain his excitement - and Fletcher is not an excitable man - when he said: "Gough bowled like he did a few years ago." Not quite, for the pace is reduced now.

Pietersen apart, the batting was ordinary. England have also got themselves into a pickle over the batting order. It might have been worth boldly experimenting with Geraint Jones (the new Adam Gilchrist!) as an unorthodox opener but it should be discontinued.

First, England have a big shotmaker as opener in Marcus Trescothick, who admittedly had a poor series. Secondly, they also have other openers in the squad. Thirdly, Jones is a biffing No 7, a position which can be of overriding importance late in a one-day innings. Fourthly, he has enough problems getting his wicketkeeping right without the onerous task of opening the batting. This one move altered the balance of the side. Fletcher did not seem to be for turning. "He showed enough to make us not throw that plan out of the door."

Jones was not helped by the form of others. Poor Trescothick always seems to run out of steam towards the end of tours and 99 runs in seven innings was not a fair return for his talents. Andrew Strauss, too, got out when he should not have done: it cannot be a coincidence that these two both rose to the heights in the Test series and may have had little left to give. Vaughan, bizarrely, remains vulnerable as a one-day player.

The bowling lacked not only Flintoff but also, effectively, Stephen Harmison and James Anderson. Harmison played two matches but was out of sorts and ready for home, and Anderson was not risked after going round the park in the warm-up match in Kimberley. For England truly to be optimistic they could do with both.

Anderson needs to bowl as soon as the season starts. The lack of competitive overs may be at the root of his loss of form and consequent loss of confidence. He has looked so youthfully forlorn here that there have been times when you just wanted to give him an avuncular pat and assure him everything would be all right.

There were other, less sung English attributes. Kabir Ali came on hugely, almost by accident since he was not earmarked for the original side. His late-order hitting was as significant as his maturing bowling.

Paul Collingwood bowled more overs in England's one-day winter than all but one bowler. That was the inestimable Ashley Giles, who almost by stealth, has become an irreplaceable cricketer. Not irreplaceable like a Flintoff but somebody you want there all the time. He usually is.

One more thing. Seven matches in 15 days is a ridiculous schedule. It must be stopped, otherwise everybody's future is bleak.