Pietersen demands self-improvement

Is there ever a bad time to be offered £500,000 for three hours' work? Publicly, Kevin Pietersen would never admit that the Stanford contest, which is now looming large in England's sights, is an unwanted distraction, but privately - in the guise of England's brand-new, results-driven captain - he might actually prefer for the fuss to blow over.
That is because, after the Oval Test victory and a thumping 4-0 scoreline in the subsequent one-dayers, Pietersen has got a taste for glory the old-fashioned way. Though bad weather in Cardiff denied him a shot at an historic whitewash against South Africa, afterwards he challenged his players to continue their quest for self-improvement, regardless of the rewards that are starting to come their way.

"At the end of the day, if you can't get yourself up for that fixture, you can't get yourself up for anything," he said of the Stanford match. "But when people send you messages, they don't talk about the cash you earn, it's about where you are in the world, and now for me as captain, it's really about the team."

"I know there are a lot of players in the [dressing] room who have settled for some sort of comfort zone in some areas, but I don't live with any comfort zones," said Pietersen. "I don't settle for mediocrity. I want my guys to perform, to chuck their talent around and be the best people they can possibly be. There's no point in living if you don't want to be as good as you can possibly be."

Rather than dwell on the one-off nature of November's trip to Antigua, Pietersen preferred to reflect on the pleasure and prestige that a month of unbridled success had brought to him and his team-mates. "Playing against such a quality side as South Africa, you're obviously an underdog," he said, "but the way the guys have come out and done their business has been absolutely exceptional and I can't fault anybody."

Pietersen's leadership style was not expected to meet with such universal approval, but within a month of taking over from Michael Vaughan, he has transformed expectations within his squad, and resharpened the minds of several senior players who might, by their own admission, have been coasting in recent times.

"With a new captain we're all eager to impress and I feel Kevin has played a major role within the side," said the Man of the Series, Andrew Flintoff. "He's a confident lad and I think that's rubbing off on the rest of the boys. He's got a big work ethic and demands a lot of his players, and everyone's responding well. We've done well so far, but I think we'll be judged in five or six months' time."

England's 4-0 scoreline has hoisted them from No. 7 in the one-day rankings to No. 3, although had the final match not been washed out, that position might have been higher still. "The big incentive today was to end up at No. 2 in the world," said Pietersen. "It wasn't hard to get switched on for a day like today, because everyone was absolutely desperate to win."

Success begets success, and that is an ethos that Pietersen is very keen to cultivate as England stride towards a winter in India, followed by a tricky spring tour of the Caribbean. "I watched a very interesting interview with Ricky Ponting at the World Cup last year," said Pietersen. "He was asked how easy or hard is it to captain Australia, and he said it's easy because every guy wakes up looking to get better and better every day. I think it's a recipe for success."

So far, it seems the Ponting method is working very nicely for Pietersen. "It hasn't gone wrong at any stage," he said. "I've been in a very fortunate position to make a few judgment calls and that's it. The rest has looked after itself which is magnificent. When you look around the world, only Australia can match England in terms of fitness. The way the lads have been on the practice fields, I don't think much can go wrong at the moment."

Pietersen is nevertheless braced for the inevitable downturn, but until it happens, he's happy to go with the flow. "I live with the philosophy of really enjoying the good times, because when the bad times come along you always long for the good times," he said. "We'll enjoy the days like today, and the series we've had, because it'll be tough in India. But if we keep ourselves fit and on the park, we'll go from strength to strength."