South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg January 13, 2010

Big-match Pietersen has doubts to settle

Kevin Pietersen's performances against South Africa were always going to be analysed in great depth - it has been the story of his career - but his poor returns in Cape Town have turned the spotlight squarely on him ahead of the series decider at the Wanderers.

Pietersen bagged scores of 0 and 6 at Newlands and it was the manner of his dismissals that raised eyebrows. In both innings he was out-thought by Dale Steyn; in the first innings he punched a full delivery back to the bowler and in the second was trapped lbw whipping across a straight ball.

"He won't be happy with what happened in Cape Town," Andrew Strauss said. "I suppose it was one of the performances that he will be least happy about so far in his career but I am not unhappy with the way he has been playing."

However, Pietersen has played an important innings in this series. Without his 81 at Centurion England would have lost that Test, although the effort was overshadowed by the run out mix-up with Jonathan Trott that brought his downfall. Then he was well-set on 31 at Durban before falling lbw to Paul Harris sweeping a very full delivery. But away from purely his dismissals, a spark has also been missing; that flash of brilliance that is the stand-out feature of his game.

It may all have a simple explanation. He could just be out of form. Credit has to go to South Africa, especially the way they bowled at him in Cape Town, and they have followed the widely accepted view that full and straight is the way to attack Pietersen early on. However, that may also be too simple. There's the impact of his time out of the game following surgery and a lingering suggestion that losing the captaincy still hurts him.

Paul Collingwood suggested he was a victim of his own success in that people always expect match-winning displays, but if he aspires to greatness those will be the demands placed on him. This is by no a means a time to panic about Pietersen - both Strauss and Trott have also managed just a single half century each - but it will be fascinating to watch his response at the Wanderers. He is a big-game player, and games don't come much bigger.

"At Centurion I thought he batted exceptionally well and that's only two Tests ago," Strauss said. "He is a man for the big occasion, he has obvious class and quality and that does not change over course of two games.

"Maybe people are reading too much into it," he added. "If he had scored heavily in the Ashes and had a couple of quiet games here nothing would have been said but because he has been out quite a long time it is easy to focus on those quiet games.

"I don't think he is out of form by any means, I think his attitude and the way he has gone about his business has been exactly as it normally is. He will come back and score runs very soon, whether it will be here or not I don't know but I have every confidence he will be putting in big performances for England in the near future."

Graeme Smith said he wasn't losing any sleep over the prospect of a return to form by Pietersen, which suggests the South Africans feel they have a measure of him, but Jacques Kallis, a player who has achieved the rank of greatness, is well aware of his potential.

"He's a quality player so it's only a matter of time before he comes right but hopefully it's not in the next one," Kallis said. "We've had a few plans against him which have worked and hopefully that will continue. We've done well to keep him quiet, but you don't become a bad player overnight."

England have shown they can win, either with Pietersen not in the side, or not on top form, and if they secure a series victory at the Wanderers without a major contribution it will be a mark of the team's strength. However, they would be a better team with Pietersen firing and until he captures the form that thrilled audiences the questions won't go away.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo