Kevin Pietersen's bravado showed little sign of abating in the afterglow of England's consolatory six-wicket victory over South Africa in the fourth Test. Pietersen was understandably thrilled to win his maiden Test as England captain and he believes the triumph will act as a stepping stone to success against Australia in next summer's Ashes.
"If we play like we played this week we will beat Australia," said a confident Pietersen at The Oval yesterday. "It will take a lot to do it. This was a one-off, a very exciting stage, a starting stage, and the key to it is turning up for every single Test as we turned up this week.
"The international cycle can become a lifestyle and create a bit of a comfort zone, so what we have to do is look at the Australians. They are on it [motivated] every single day and that will be my main driving force for this team; to be up for the challenge every single day by improving, becoming better and having no comfort zones.
"I have certainly done some thinking about Australia next year, a lot more than when I would have when I was a player because you want to get the structure right, so guys can play in certain positions, feel comfortable, know their role and deliver. It will be important over the next nine months to learn their roles and then deliver."
It is important for leaders to show optimism and enthusiasm but proclamations tend to have greater effect when they have a touch of pragmatism about them too. What Pietersen failed to realise was that yesterday's victory at The Oval coincided with England slipping from fourth to fifth place in the Test rankings. He also paid little notice to the fact the win was achieved against a de-mob happy outfit in a dead match. For South Africa the hard work had already been completed at Headingley and Edgbaston, where impressive performances had moved them in to an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.
It is hard to believe England's victory or Pietersen's comments will have sent shudders through the Australian dressing room. The retirement of Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne has left the world champions looking far more vulnerable but they remain, by some distance, the game's leading side. South Africa are scheduled to play Australia in home and away Test series this winter and the results emanating from the Southern Hemisphere will give a stronger indication of where England are placed. South African victories would give England cause for encouragement, whereas Australian wins would emphasise how wide the gulf still is between cricket's oldest enemies.
Pietersen admitted that the past week had taken a lot out of him. "I'm absolutely knackered," he said. "The lads were brilliant. We had our chat at the start of the Test and said how we wanted to play. We were really open and honest about what we wanted to do and the players showed the pride and passion I wanted in every session. It was brilliant and I could not have asked for any more. This was not far away from the perfect start and this is definitely the way I want to play cricket in the future. I am more tired than normal. There is that extra responsibility, you have to have your eye on every single ball in the field. You can doze off; you can't go off for half an hour and sleep on the boundary. It has been a good, fun five days and it is a really happy tiredness, especially having won."
England's win was completed with surprising ease, when one of the home team's powerfully built and destructive middle order batsmen smashed Paul Harris back over his head and in to the pavilion for six. The only surprise was that it was not Pietersen who struck the winning runs, finishing off a memorable debut in majestic style. That honour was left to Andrew Flintoff; perhaps Pietersen needs to find a new scriptwriter.
The past week could not have worked out better for Pietersen but the performance, though encouraging, does not mean everything is suddenly right in the England dressing room. The coming one-day series against South Africa will undoubtedly provide him with sterner challenges, as will the pre-Christmas Test and limited-over tour of India. Telling an individual that he is not playing in Sir Allen Stanford's $20m match is sure to test him, too.
Even so Pietersen's management of the team and his ability to cope with the pressure of captaincy were both positives, as was the bowling of Stephen Harmison and the ever-improving fitness of Flintoff. England fans will be hoping that these three players form the axis of the team in months to come. Each carries the X-factor, and if the triumvirate can be kept fit and united, pulling in a similar direction for the same cause, there can be room for optimism.
That England were able to win so convincingly was largely down to a 123-run opening partnership between Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel made life uncomfortable for the pair to begin with as nine runs were scored off the opening nine overs of the day. Strauss had a much-needed stroke of luck on four when the umpire's no-ball call saved him from being out caught at leg gully. Had Morkel not overstepped, Strauss's England career and the Test could have once again been in the balance.
It was Cook who instigated England's charge to victory. The left-hander drove, pulled and cut with authority before edging a loose drive at Ntini to Graeme Smith at first slip.
Strauss completed his first half-century of the series when he pulled Ntini for four but he and Ian Bell fell in the space of three balls, wickets that briefly dampened the enthusiasm of a healthy 15,000 crowd. Ntini bowled Bell behind his legs while Strauss was caught at leg slip off the bowling of Harris. With the stage set and the crowd waiting for Pietersen to hit the winning runs the England captain messed up, edging a defensive prod on to his pad and being caught at short leg. In a remarkable week it was one of the only mistakes he made.
Shot of the day
There are some special ways of finishing a Test match and Andrew Flintoff produced one yesterday when he stepped down the track and smashed the gentle spin of Paul Harris straight back over his head and in to The Oval pavilion for six.
Ball of the day
It is hard to believe Makhaya Ntini can have bowled many right-handed batsmen behind their legs as he bowls from so wide in the crease. But he did just that yesterday to knock out Ian Bell's leg stump. The batsman looked dumbstruck.
Moment of the day
Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Smith do not get on and it would have been fascinating to know what was going through each captain's mind when they shook hands at the end of the Test. Pietersen, undoubtedly, enjoyed the exchange more.
South Africa won the toss
South Africa - First innings 194
England - First innings 316 (K P Pietersen 100)
South Africa - Second innings 318
England - Second innings (Overnight 0-0)
A J Strauss c Smith b Harris 58
165 mins, 107 balls, 6 fours, 1 five
A N Cook c Smith b Ntini 67
134 mins, 106 balls, 12 fours
I R Bell b Ntini 4
25 mins, 19 balls, 1 four
*K P Pietersen c McKenzie b Harris 13
45 mins, 27 balls, 2 fours
P D Collingwood not out 25
56 mins, 50 balls, 4 fours
A Flintoff not out 11
15 mins, 14 balls, 1 four, 1 six
Extras (b 6, lb 7, w 1, nb 6) 20
Total (4 wkts, 222 mins, 52.5 overs) 198
Fall: 1-123 (Cook), 2-147 (Bell), 3-147 (Strauss), 4-182 (Pietersen).
Did not bat: +T R Ambrose, S C J Broad, S J Harmison, J M Anderson, M S Panesar.
Bowling: Morkel 13-2-43-0 (nb4, w1) (7-2-13-0 2-0-8-0 4-0-22-0), Ntini 14-4-55-2 (nb2) (8-4-29-0 6-0-26-2), Harris 19.5-5-56-2 (one spell), Nel 5-0-21-0 (3-0-16-0 2-0-5-0), Kallis 1-0-10-0.
Progress: Fifth day: 50: 73 min, 16.3 overs. 100: 112 min, 25.4 overs. Lunch: 109-0 (Strauss 38, Cook 58) 29 overs. 150: 172 mins, 39.5 overs.
Strauss 50: 145 mins, 95 balls, 5 fours, 1 five. Cook 50: 104 mins, 83 balls, 10 fours.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and S J Davis (Aus).
Man of the match: K P Pietersen.
Men of the series: K P Pietersen and G C Smith.
England win by six wickets.
South Africa win series 2-1.