Smiles all round as new era begins with loving flourish

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The Independent Online

And so the love-in continued. England, led by Kevin Pietersen for the first time, duly beat South Africa yesterday by six wickets. The culmination did not quite follow to the letter the pre-ordained script.

As far as the capacity crowd was concerned, the re-write was an improvement. Pietersen, who was obviously intended to be at the crease at the end of a remarkable week, was forced to depart the stage in something of an anti-climax with 15 runs still wanted when a catch looped off inside edge and pad to short leg.

Enter Andrew Flintoff. If the reception accorded Pietersen had been wholly respectful, Freddie was greeted as if the conquering hero was returning, a sure sign that past deeds are never forgotten by English sports fans.

He did not disappoint. Circumspect and obviously determined not to muck it up, he finished with a magnificent flourish. He late cut the second ball of the 53rd over to third man and straight drove the fifth for six into the Pavilion End.

Pietersen was rightly judged to be man of the match and England's man of the series and the chants of "KP, KP" demonstrated that he has entered English hearts. But the full house, all walk-ups on the day and loving it as if to confirm that Test cricket is far, far from dead, would not have minded if their darling Freddie had won both awards for doing not very much at all really.

Pietersen was a model of humility afterwards, as he usually is despite all the stories of his abrasiveness. Asked about the return of the fast bowler Stephen Harmison he said: "I couldn't have asked more of the big man and wouldn't have minded him getting this awards rather than me."

There were hippy settlements in the Sixties who would have learned a thing or two from Pietersen about the dispensation of love and understanding. England go to India in the autumn for seven one-day matches and two Tests and it would not be a complete surprise if the tour uniform included beads and bangles and the itinerary involved visiting some ashram up in the mountains to learn more about the culture of compassion and tenderness.

India might have been on several minds yesterday, not least that of Andrew Strauss. He has had a lean second series of the summer and since he is an intelligent chap he will have understood that he needed runs. Actually, a thicko could have worked out that a top score of 44 from six innings in the series was not designed to keep a career afloat. He and Alastair Cook played uncommonly well when it mattered against the new ball in the morning. South Africa did not exactly throw the kitchen sink at them but there was enough movement and pace to encourage the bowlers, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini. For 11 overs all the batsmen could do was stand guard and stay vigilant. Cook took Ntini exclusively, Strauss faced Morkel. They were both discomfited but they stayed resolute.

The score had reached only 11 after 11 overs but then they burst their shackles. By lunch after 29 overs, England's opening stand was worth 109. Both were out in a mini-wobble, Cook for the 10th time in his career in the sixties. Strauss's 58 was neither one thing nor the other but it was probably just enough to save him.

There is a school of thought that these two left-handers are too similar in approach, but equally if they build a solid platform that should not matter. There are unresolved issues about England's batting but yesterday was a day for peace, man.

Lead role: Triumphs and disasters

Selected England captains' first game in charge:

Kevin Pietersen August 2008 v S Africa (Oval). Won by 6 wkts

Michael Vaughan August 2003 v S Africa (Lord's). Lost by innings and 92 runs

Nasser Hussain July 1999 v New Zealand (Edgbaston). Won by 7 wkts

Mike Atherton Feb 1994 v W Indies (Sabina Park). Lost by 8 wkts

Graham Gooch August 1988 v Sri Lanka (Lord's). Won by 7 wkts

Mike Gatting June 1984 v India (Headingley). Lost by 279 runs

Ian Botham June 1980 v West Indies (Trent Bridge). Lost by 2 wkts