Kevin Pietersen: targeting Australia already © Getty Images
 
"If we play like we played this week, we'll beat Australia," declared Kevin Pietersen, only minutes after becoming the fourth man in the last 30 years to win his first Test as England captain. If that seemed a tad of an over-reaction to a comfortable but unspectacular dead-rubber triumph, then it was merely an extension of the up-and-at-'em attitude that has revived English spirits at the end of a disappointing series. Pietersen has never stood on ceremony at any stage of his career, and this moment of victory was not likely to change that pattern one iota.

"This is a very exciting stage, but a starting stage," he said. "The key is to turn up to every single Test match like we turned up to this one. With the structures and the players we've got, the type of attack we've had in this game, the way we've gone about the game and the way we've been up for it every single day, and the emotions that the guys have come out with, it's not far away from a perfect start. It's the way we want to play our cricket in the future."

The fact that England have now slipped one place from fourth to fifth in the ICC Test rankings clearly has no bearing on the hyperactive thought-processes that Pietersen has been putting himself through in the week since he assumed the role of England captain. An arduous winter looms in India, followed by a springtime tour of the Caribbean and then a possible home Test series against Sri Lanka (IPL commitments pending). But Pietersen knows full well that there's only one contest that really captures the public imagination, and as such, he's wasted no time in firing the first shots of the 2009 Ashes.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking over the last five days, and I've definitely done a bit of thinking about Australia next year," said Pietersen. "Certainly, a lot more than I would have if I was a player. It's about getting the structure right for a long amount of time so the players can feel comfortable and know their role, and deliver. I think that's very important, over the next nine months, for the boys to learn their roles and deliver next year."

Quite what the Australians will make of Pietersen's long-term ambitions remains to be seen - clearly they won't consider his hubristic approach to be out of character. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that England have hit upon a certain something in the course of this contest. The form and fitness of Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff means that England's attack has been stripped bare and reassembled since the start of the summer, with James Anderson finally confident enough to play a starring role in his own right, and Stuart Broad finding his niche as the junior player in a five-man set-up.

It is a formation that has the capacity to rattle a few opponents in the coming months, but not even Pietersen, surely, will be kidding himself that he's found the answer to the England's post-2005 malaise after one half-decent win. After all, when England last took on South Africa, in the winter of 2004-05, not only did they emerge victorious in a contest that was far more keenly contested than this one, they did so with a team that contained nine of the eleven men who went on to defeat Australia the following summer.

How many of the current eleven can feel confident about their futures just now? Andrew Strauss's first fifty of the series cannot mask another flaccid performance from a player who revived his career against the Kiwis, but who averaged 24 on the last Ashes tour and hasn't gone big against any senior opponent since the Shoaib-less Pakistanis toured England in 2006. Ian Bell's form has shrunk away since his 199 at Lord's, while Tim Ambrose played this match with an expression as hang-dog as if he had already been dropped

In fact, aside from Pietersen, Flintoff and the version of Harmison that turned up at The Oval this week, there's no-one else who can declare with any certainty that they will be in the team that opens the Ashes at Cardiff next summer. Nevertheless, Pietersen's confidence was clearly contagious during the contest just gone. He hasn't got long to formulate a squad that can live up to his ambitions, but his positive and aggressive outlook is a useful starting point.

"It's been a good fun five days, and I've got a real happy tiredness," said Pietersen. "It's about that excitement at the start, but I want to be a guy who talks to the players and they think: 'Yeah, he really truly wants me to do well here.' It's important to have that relationship with your players and your coach where you really want to perform for each other, and you know they'll do anything on the planet for you. It's a recipe for success."

Pietersen was particularly pleased to see the pride and passion come flooding back into England's game during this match, and for that he reserved a special mention for Harmison, who arguably hasn't looked as enthused by international cricket since his blood-letting first morning of the 2005 Ashes at Lord's.

"Big Steve came back in after a time out and he was magnificent," said Pietersen. "I said to Stevey, when I told him he was playing, I want you open, I want you to bowl fast and straight, and bowl like the old Steve Harmison. He said he'd do his best and his best was good enough.

"He's a huge player, absolutely huge, and we've seen this week how important he is for us," said Pietersen. "I'm going to be looking after Steve as best I can, but also looking to get the best out of him as well. I think now he's experienced international cricket again, which he loves, and with the smile he's got now, I'm definitely going to get the best out of him."

Such is Pietersen's confidence in his new-found leadership abilities, he added that he had even been trying to coax Harmison out of his one-day retirement. "It would be lovely to have him coming in first-change with the white ball, but you don't always get what you want in life," he said. Compared to that particular ambition, the Ashes might actually be a doddle.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo