Thursday August 7 to Monday August 11, 2008
Start time 11.00 (10.00GMT)
Kevin Pietersen gives Ravi Bopara a consolatory hug after the announcement of his first team
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Rarely has a dead rubber created such a stir. The series may have been wrapped up at Edgbaston last week, but so too was the career of one of England's finest captains. As Michael Vaughan departs the stage in tears, into the fray steps none other than Kevin Pietersen, the bête noire of South African cricket, and the man that his former countrymen love to hate. Pietersen's presence alone adds a whole new level of excitement to a contest that might otherwise have been a victory procession for Graeme Smith's men. Their first series win in England for 43 years will feel all the sweeter if they are able to inflict on Pietersen the same sort of drubbing with which Vaughan was baptised in the role, five long years ago. Conversely, if Pietersen is able to rally his troops with the same up-and-at-em attitude that he brings to his own game, English optimism for the future may not be entirely unfounded.
Watch out for...
Kevin Pietersen: Who else? The ego has landed in no uncertain terms. It will be fascinating to watch how he goes about his work this week. His entire captaincy career amounts to one comfortable beating in an ODI against New Zealand in June, and so many facets of his leadership remain to be seen - his approach to field placings, bowling changes and, perhaps most crucially, man-management. Also under the spotlight will be KP's own attitude with the bat. Will he dare a repeat of the punchy performance that carried England back into contention at Edgbaston, if it means risking a shot similar to the one that got him out. One thing is for sure, the team that he's selected is not one that's going to die in a hole wondering.
Graeme Smith: One year younger, but in captaincy terms, on another level of experience, the man that Pietersen once dismissed as a "muppet" is quietly plotting the most publicly humiliating of retorts. Smith's sublime 154 not out at Edgbaston has been virtually overlooked in the chaos of the past week, but one day it will be acknowledged as the performance of a man in utter command of his game, his team and the series situation. Smith is at the absolute zenith of his captaincy career, and with Australia looming in December this year, his focus is sure to remain unwavering. Five years ago, he sent Nasser Hussain packing from the England captaincy in almost identical circumstances ... and followed up with a crushing innings victory in Vaughan's first Test in charge. His share of that performance at Lord's was the small matter of 259 chanceless runs. When he pauses to reflect on the task ahead, that fact will loom large in Pietersen's thoughts.
England have announced two changes of personnel, but an entire overhaul in attitude. Michael Vaughan's absence briefly raised the prospect of a recall for Ravi Bopara, but Pietersen has preferred to place his faith in the remaining top five, and bring Stuart Broad to bulk out the tail and provide a fifth bowling option. Also returning is Steve Harmison - handed his chance by Ryan Sidebottom's back problem - who will be thrown the new ball for the first time since the Old Trafford Test against West Indies in June last year. Ian Bell, England's serial underachiever, is given the chance to sink or swim at No. 3, while Andrew Flintoff reverts to the No. 6 position from which he won the Ashes in 2005.
England 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Ian Bell,
4 Kevin Pietersen (capt), 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Tim Ambrose (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Steve Harmison, 10 James Anderson, 11 Monty Panesar.
No such ground-breaking team news for South Africa. With Dale Steyn still unfit, they are all set to name an unchanged side, although Graeme Smith remains slightly troubled by the back injury that hindered his movement (though not noticeably) during the Edgbaston Test. "I've been working quite hard with the physio, and I'll just keep managing it until I get some rest," said Smith. "It's basically down to over-use, because we've had a lot of intense cricket since the Twenty20 World Cup [in September].
South Africa 1 Graeme Smith, 2 Neil McKenzie, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 Ashwell Prince, 6 AB de Villiers, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Morne Morkel, 9 Paul Harris, 10 Andre Nel, 11 Makhaya Ntini.
Umpires: Steve Davis and Aleem Dar
Pitch and conditions
The Oval has not enjoyed the best of reputations in recent years, with the last three matches all finishing as high-scoring draws. Nevertheless, Bill Gordon, the groundsman, anticipates rather more pace in the deck that has been seen of late, and for the moment at least, there is still a decent covering of grass. That sort of news will doubtless suit Harmison, although Morne Morkel and his colleagues won't mind that sort of prognosis either.
Stats and Trivia
South Africa's last Test at The Oval, in 2003, was a classic - as England, 2-1 down in the series, recovered from a first-day scoreline of 290 for 1 to record an emphatic nine-wicket victory.
The best bowling figures ever recorded for a South Africa Test in England were made on this ground 14 years ago, when Devon Malcolm took 9 for 57 to pull England level in the series. Pietersen's defining innings in Test cricket occurred on this ground in 2005, when he made 158 in England's second innings to secure the draw that won England the Ashes.
"He's got a one-off Test against us, he'll be hugely motivated, he'll be excited, nervous, and have a lot of energy for this game. But everything you do in this game as captain, it's about sustaining it afterwards."
Smith warns Pietersen to enjoy the moment while it lasts, because the real test of his captaincy is to come.
" I think the recipe for success that I've tried to use is, do it my way. Once you go over the white line, express yourself, and do whatever you need to do to be successful."
Pietersen outlines his own captaincy philosophy.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo