South Africa v England

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South Africa Wraps-up ODI Series

News by Neil Robinson 17/02/05

Following their hard-fought victory in the Test series, a tired England succumbed to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of South Africa in the one-dayers. The wear and tear of five closely packed Test Matches had been evident enough during the series itself, so it was little surprise that England's efforts were carried largely by the one-day specialists who had flown out just before the fifth Test. The bowling would hardly have given the hosts pause for thought were it not for the sterling efforts of Darren Gough and some good support from Kabir Ali. But most notable of all was the scintillating batting of South African born Kevin Pietersen, who took on his former countrymen virtually single-handed, scoring more runs than Trescothick, Vaughan and Strauss put together.

Pietersen's three centuries and series average of 151.33 were enough to claim him the man of the series award, but not enough to turn the tide in favour of England. In truth, the tourists were comprehensively outplayed by the resurgent South Africans in all three departments. England's bowling simply lacked the consistency to restrict the prolific Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs, both of whom scored over 300 runs, while in the crucial fifth match where South Africa took their unassailable 3-1 lead, a crucial tactical error in the removal of Paul Collingwood from the attack when he was proving unhittable, presaged a brutal assault by Justin Kemp which took the game well beyond England. Even Pietersen's stunning century, brought up with a six off the last ball of the match, was not enough.

Although England started the series by restricting South Africa with an outstanding bowling performance from Gough, Hoggard and Ali, thereafter they rarely held control in the field. Lacking the injured Flintoff, who was missed more for his bowling than his batting, only Gough proved capable of pitching yorkers into the blockhole with the required regularity. Although schooled in a domestic system which plays more limited overs cricket than any other nation on earth, the rest of England's bowlers were strangely unable to master this most essential one-day virtue. Once the ball was soft and no longer swinging, they were cannon fodder. By comparison, for the home side Pollock, Ntini and Nel bowled with consistency and intelligence, with only Pietersen getting the better of them for any length of time.

It would be unfair to say that England looked generally sloppy or disinterested in the field, but the hunger and determination which has characterised their recent performances was visibly lacking. Save the ever outstanding Collingwood, whose acrobatics at backward point get better and better, there were clearly some tired bodies and minds out there. None more so than Steve Harmison, who admitted in a press conference to wishing he had failed a fitness test on his calf. England's other home body, Marcus Trescothick, was another man who looked like he wished he was back in England, falling to some lazy-looking shots after an impressive cameo in the first match.

Winning the series was probably England's first consideration, but a close second would have been learning more about themselves through experimentation. The main new idea was that of opening the innings with Geraint Jones, presumably the latest way of making him seem like England's Adam Gilchrist. It was not a success. The idea of a pinch-hitter is always a dubious one in seamer-friendly conditions against a white ball, but even in favourable conditions the hitter needs to be a powerful strokemaker. This Jones is not. He is a fine, positive batsman with a good range of shots, but he is not a big hitter in the Gilchrist mode. England only have two players of that ilk, Pietersen and Flintoff, and they will be happier at four and five.

South Africa's series win was a welcome boost to them after a run of embarrassing defeats only lessened by the shallow triumph of beating Bangladesh. But their fragile self-belief was always a problem, most clearly of all in the second match, in which they needed only 3 to win from the last 6 balls, yet still managed to tie. But they improved as the series went on, and will no doubt gain in confidence for their forthcoming challenges against Zimbabwe and the West Indies.

These series of one-dayers come and go in the blink of an eye and linger no longer in the memory. I can picture that final over in the tied match well enough, but the rest of that game is no clearer in the mind than some I watched twenty years ago. But I will make exception for the batting of Kevin Pietersen, who has made as dramatic an impact in this form of the game as Andrew Strauss has in Test matches.

Before this series began there were few people who would have given Pietersen a serious price for a place in the Test team for the coming Ashes series, now there are few arguing against it. Even England's tactiturn coach Duncan Fletcher remarked that the tall right-hander's claims could not be ignored. At first there were wisperings that the technique he used, shuffling across his stumps to hit the ball through the leg-side, was too unorthodox to prosper at Test level, or that he needed to show he could bat when the side was in trouble. One by one, he answered the questions. In the final match, finding his team at 67 for 6, he showed he could defend with perfect orthodoxy, blocking his way through most of the innings before launching an awesome assault towards the end. Six sixes were sent into orbit, over midwicket and long-on, in the course of an innings which took his team to an unlikely, but ultimately insufficient 240. It was an innings of discipline, power, judgement and beauty, a rare and very fine thing to see.

Greater tests lie ahead of course, and doubts may well resurface should he find himself up against the world's greatest bowlers in the far tougher arena of Test match cricket. His dominant front foot method may leave him vulnerable to the short ball, something South Africa rarely tested him with, or his fondness for using the bottom hand may get him into trouble just outside off-stump. But unorthodoxy is not necessarily a bar to success, especially when combined with huge talent and even huger self-belief. Pietersen was roundly booed every time he walked to the wicket in his former homeland. He seemed to revel in it, and more than once left the field to an equally rousing ovation. Whatever challenges lie ahead for young Pietersen, he seems sure to face them head-on.

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