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South Africa will be our biggest test, says Strauss

Captain looks to Pietersen as he admits England must find greatest form of his era

Andrew Strauss has played in two Ashes-winning sides, taken a telling role in a series triumph in South Africa and revelled in whitewashing West Indies, but to return home from South Africa in January clutching the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy will require a level of performance higher still according to the England captain.

Strauss's squad arrived in South Africa on Sunday and held their first training session in Bloemfontein yesterday as they prepare for the opening match of the tour, a 50-over contest against the Diamond Eagles on Friday. Ahead lie two Twenty20 internationals, five one-dayers and then four Tests either side of Christmas which Strauss believes presents the greatest challenge of his five years in the England side.

"We will have to play better than we have played, certainly in my time as an England player," said Strauss. "That's a bit of a step up for us. We are all aware at this stage of our development we are not the finished product by any means. That [winning the series] would be an incredible achievement – beating the No 1 side in the world at home, that's as hard as it can get."

Strauss scored three hundreds in five Tests during England's last tour of South Africa in 2004-05 to set up a series win that was to prove an important stepping stone en route to winning the Ashes. This time it is the other way round, as are the rankings.

"As a group we understand the extent and the challenge that this tour sets us," said Strauss, who leads England abroad for the second time following last winter's defeat in the Caribbean. "This is an opportunity for us to see where we are as a side and also to make some steps forward in terms of becoming more consistent and more able to deal with the best sides in the world on a consistent basis."

In England's favour is the home side's historical tendency to wobble as expectation increases. Last year they recorded a notable triumph in Australia to claim the No 1 spot in the rankings that Strauss so religiously pays homage to. But Ricky Ponting's side promptly won in South Africa, a victory achieved in large part due to remarkable performances from Phillip Hughes and Mitchell Johnson – two players who, in turn, England successfully outwitted this summer.

South Africa's pale displays in the Champions Trophy in September, where they were fancied to prosper with home advantage added to a strong, talented squad, provided another example of Graeme Smith's side going down with a severe dose of favourititis. Being given a lesson in one-day batting by Owais Shah must have caused some fevered brows.

The return of Kevin Pietersen to his homeland is also likely to raise temperatures, but for Strauss having his best batsman back for the first time since the Lord's Test in July is a sizeable fillip. Pietersen, who is completing recuperation from surgery on his right Achilles tendon, will not arrive until early next week. After batting for the first time in three months in the Lord's nets on Friday, Pietersen is unlikely to play in the Twenty20 games but should be ready for the first one-day international on 20 November at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, the venue for his first game for England against South Africa four years ago.

"I'm genuinely excited about having him back," said Strauss. "We've missed his quality, we've missed his influence and I also think he's going to come back very refreshed, hungry and motivated. When you have a player of that quality with that frame of mind, you can expect him to go out and play really well.

"We don't want him to come back before he's ready, so he's got to make sure he's completely over his injury before we bring him back. But it's going to be a great boost for us to have him back in the environment."

That environment will be a hostile one wherever Pietersen does appear. In 2005 he was booed incessantly and responded by averaging a remarkable 151 in the one-day series. Strauss was also born in South Africa, while Jonathan Trott's South African connections have been well documented of late. But Strauss does not believe it will have any bearing on his side. "I think it's only an issue if you let it affect you," he said. "I've been here before, Kevin Pietersen's been here before, so it's not something that will affect us."

*Chris Gayle was last night reinstated as West Indies captain for the forthcoming three-Test series in Australia, marking the end of a long-running contract dispute involving the team's leading players. Gayle last played for the Test side against England six months ago.