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August 7, 2008
As first challenges go, a dead-rubber contest at the scene of your greatest batting triumph is a fairly pleasant way to begin, and Pietersen nestled into his job with the enthusiasm and confidence of a man who knows that The Oval will forever be his fiefdom. Not even he will be kidding himself that it will be this easy forever - Ahmedabad in December will be a vastly different prospect, for starters. And yet, the first impressions were impressive. He led his side with a smile, and for a heady afternoon, the gloom that has enveloped English cricket this past month was lifted.
Sportsmen like to claim that they make their own luck, and in Pietersen's case, that has generally involved hours and hours in the nets, perfecting the sort of outrageous strokes that thrilled Edgbaston during his 94 last week. As far as the captaincy is concerned, however, it's all been a little bit more seat-of-the-pants. He's admitted to knowing next to nothing about reading pitches, and until he's had more experience in the job, his tactical acumen is sure to be found wanting when the going gets tougher.
But today Pietersen nonetheless revealed himself to be a lucky captain, and as Michael Vaughan will acknowledge after his contrasting emotions at Edgbaston in 2005 and 2008, that is not an aspect of the job that can be downplayed in any way. "I don't think he got challenged that much, but a lot of things went right for him and us," said the main man of England's day, Steve Harmison.
That Harmison was fit and firing was perhaps Pietersen's biggest stroke of luck of all, and yet, without careful handling from a man whose inter-personal skills have often been called into question, his presence could easily have backfired - as it so frequently did for Vaughan in his second incarnation as England captain.
Instead Pietersen backed his man to the hilt, insisting Harmison took the new ball for the first time since his delinquent performance against West Indies at Old Trafford last June. His response was positive, just as Andrew Flintoff's had been when he was asked to bat at No. 6, and in a trice, two of the most crucial members of England's dressing-room had been won over. A timely text message on the eve of the game ramped up Harmison's sense of belonging, and left him feeling, in his own words, as excited as if it were Christmas Eve.
Those are the little details that can make or break the unity of a team. In his most symbolic display of a new beginning, Pietersen did away with the mid-pitch huddle that had become a trademark of Vaughan's reign. Rather than get his bonding out of the way in one fell swoop, Pietersen opted instead for regular contact with as many members of his team as he could reach. Today he was not called upon to make many grand gesticulations from mid-on, but arms around the shoulder and taps on the backside were in abundance. He seems determined to spread the love in his new-look and new-feel England.
"He's up for it!" said Harmison. "He's enjoying his challenge as captain. Obviously he's only done it for one day, but it's his enthusiasm for cricket, rather than the job itself, that is going to make him a good captain. He's going to bounce around the field, and he's always got ideas and he's always behind you. You can't ask for more than that."
Contrary to expectations, especially given one or two less-than-enthusiastic remarks from some of England's senior batsmen, Pietersen's first day as leader was their most united in the field since, arguably, Andrew Flintoff carried his men to victory in Mumbai in 2005-06 on a wing, a prayer and a chorus of Johnny Cash. That match in itself should serve as a cautionary tale, given the disasters that befell England soon afterwards, but today's sense of enjoyment and renewal could yet prove to be contagious.
"He's not done it before so we needed to help him," said Harmison. "There were 11 captains out there, and a lot of us helped him, not so much because he needed it, but because he's still learning. We need to lift our own game to make sure we stand by him, and not let him die in a hole when things don't go right."
"Eleven captains", funnily enough, was the demand that Vaughan made during his own captaincy debut five years ago. Though his own first day in the job was perhaps as far removed from Pietersen's as is sportingly possible, the desire to raise their game for their skipper was precisely what hauled England back into contention in that memorable series.
This time, of course, the deal has already been sealed, and nothing that England achieve in this contest can compensate for the losses at Headingley and Edgbaston. But, if the first impressions are anything to go by, Pietersen is putting himself out there for his team, and they are responding.
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