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Like everything during the early stages of Kevin Pietersen's captaincy, the speed of England's one-day revival has come as a surprise.
August 29, 2008
Of course, 5-0 is still two good performances away for England and with the series in the bag it remains to be seen whether they can keep the motivation levels high enough. South Africa have certainly found it difficult to rouse themselves after their main task was completed in the Tests. But the benefit of the upheaval England have been through since their Test-series defeat at Edgbaston is that it has given them plenty of incentive to perform. Not least because their new captain is constantly taking notes.
"It puts extra pressure on us [searching for 5-0] because it takes us up to second in the world, which is very very interesting," Pietersen said. "That's the sort of pressure we want. Pressure, I believe, is a privilege. If we win 5-0, which is a goal, then it takes us up to the top with Australia. If we keep delivering there's no reason why we can't do it.
"We are doing a real good job on South Africa at the moment," he added with a sense of achievement. "I know South Africans really well. They wouldn't have wanted to lose the series 3-0. They are very proud people and very stubborn people. I know them well, it's definitely hurt them, but it's the pressure we have applied over the three games."
Pietersen isn't someone who accepts second-best and he won't be shy of putting anyone in their place if they start to drift in the final two games. However, England are currently a very happy team - a term Pietersen spread liberally after the match - and there is a clear enjoyment in everything they are doing. It helps, no end, to be winning. "There's no fear, playing with Kev," said Samit Patel, who was Man of the Match after his vital 31 and 5 for 41. "It's a freedom to play cricket and enjoy it. You can't ask for any more from the captain. As a newcomer coming in it's been great."
Contrary to some expectations, Pietersen seems genuinely thrilled by the individual success of his team-mates. "One of my goals was to get guys playing to their potential, loving playing for England and loving the badge. So far the guys have been brilliant," he said. "The fortunate thing I have is that I have guys who bowl at 90mph and two guys who can bat as well - [Stuart] Broad and [Andrew] Flintoff."
In the space of three matches Pietersen has been able to form a side that looks like a winning ODI outfit and plays like one. Compare it to the team that finished with their second consecutive 3-1 defeat to New Zealand in July and the transformation has been stark. Only five players remain from the side that lost by 51 runs at Lord's, compared to the one that won by 126 runs here. Pietersen's attacking mindset - the desire for pace in the middle overs and a deep batting order - has been key.
It has been Pietersen's good fortune to have Flintoff and Steve Harmison firing, but he makes his own luck. He had the force of personality to persuade Harmison out of retirement and has given Flintoff the responsibility he relishes. The pair have been fundamental to England's upsurge in form.
As it was at Headingley, Flintoff's batting was central to the success. When he came in at No. 5 there was the ideal platform of 146 for 3 in the 26th over, but that soon became 182 for 5 in the 35th. It was the tipping point of the innings. One more wicket and England's lower order would have been exposed too early. He played the perfect innings. It started with a languid cover drive, then he made sure he played through the mid-innings wobble alongside the mature Patel. He waited until well into the final 10 overs to have a dip, trusting in his own ability.
At the start of the 40th over Flintoff had 38 off 46 balls; then he took a nasty blow from Morne Morkel off his 50th delivery. But he refocused - in every sense - and cracked 39 off his next 27 balls. The authority is returning to Flintoff's batting, a commanding presence that hasn't existed since the heady days of 2004 and 2005. He has been given a huge vote of confidence by Pietersen and is repaying him.
It is a long while since England have produced one-day cricket of this vibrancy in a run of matches (albeit just three games) against supposedly superior opposition. They had their moments against Australia in 2005 when they also had a side packed with fast bowling and a deep order. But the stand-out feature of these last three matches is that South Africa have either completely outplayed or, if they have momentarily had a sniff, England have come down hard on them.
Although this doesn't seem the moment, a word of a caution is worthy. When England had a major change of captaincy in 2003 a certain Michael Vaughan swept all before him in one-day colours winning his first two series, including thrashing South Africa in the Natwest Series final. Then, last year, Paul Collingwood beat India and Sri Lanka early in his reign. They were both false dawns, and the one-day side quickly slipped back to mediocrity. This time, you sense, it might just be different.
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