England look to Pietersen for inspiration
From 1-0 up to 3-1 down, England's one-day campaign has taken a decided turn for the worse. A jammy tie at Bloemfontein - where South Africa were a mis-hit full-toss away from victory - was followed by three defeats in a row, and whatever the scoreline might claim of Wednesday's seven-run reversal at East London, the last two games have been as one-sided as they come.
In fact, without the extraordinarily brusque strokeplay of Kevin Pietersen, there would hardly have been a contest at all. His series aggregate of 338 runs includes 175 in those two matches alone - 75 from 85 balls at Cape Town (where no other batsman passed 20) and an astonishing 100 not out from 69 balls at East London, which was England's fastest one-day century of all time, and Pietersen's second in four matches.
So it is no exaggeration to suggest that England's hopes of salvaging something from this series are already resting on his broad shoulders. Happily for England's flagging resolve, he was far from satisfied after his final-ball six had secured a hundred - but not a victory - at Buffalo Park. "It was fantastic to get a hundred, but I'm not happy with the result," he told Sky Sports straight after the match. "We'll be looking to knock them over at Durban and Pretoria, and tie the series."
How England hope to knock them over, however, is less clear. In the absence of Andrew Flintoff, and with Steve Harmison beset with form and homesickness demons, the attack is severely lacking a cutting edge. Darren Gough, with his snazzy new haircut, has been urging his 34-year-old knees into an heroic assault on the bowling crease, while Kabir Ali has impressed in patches. But Matthew Hoggard has been demonstrating why he has not played one-day cricket in over two years, while Paul Collingwood and Marcus Trescothick are liabilities as the fifth bowling option.
Michael Vaughan was particularly critical of his bowlers after they had conceded a ground-record 311 for 7 in the last match. "The bowling is an area we definitely need to address," he admitted to reporters. "To get within hitting range was a great effort by the batters, but we allowed them to score too many, and if you do not get wickets, you are going to face a barrage in the final 15 overs."
That is precisely what happened, as Graeme Smith and, especially, the big-hitting Justin Kemp launched into the bowling. They took 111 runs off the final 15 overs, taking advantage of the short boundaries and a lacklustre attack. Smith finished on an unbeaten 115 - his second one-day century - but the Man of the Match award rightly went to Kemp, whose 80 came from 50 balls, and included seven massive sixes. "It is dangerous at the other end when he comes in," said Smith. "He is playing superbly, and it is great to have people at the bottom who can hit the ball out of the ground."
Nine years ago, England capitulated from a 1-1 scoreline to a 6-1 defeat, and such is the way this series has gone, that something very similar is on the cards at Durban. It represents quite a turnaround for a side that, at the start of the series, had managed just one win in their last 13 matches - and that had come against Bangladesh.
But ebb and flow was the feature of the Test series, and with Pietersen in tow, England will not have given up hope of squaring the series just yet. "We have pushed them really hard in four of the first five games," said Vaughan, "and I believe we can turn it around and force a 3-3. If we can exert some pressure they could fold like any team in the world.