Thursday, August 7, 2008

Pietersen's tenure begins in style

Steve Harmison bowled Hashim Amla with a terrific yorker.

Steve Harmison and James Anderson inspired England with five wickets between them, as South Africa were dismissed for a disappointing 194 on the opening day at The Oval. With the series already tied up, there was a concern South Africa's focus might have swayed for this, the final Test, and so it appeared. But for a bold 39 from AB de Villiers, and 46 from an exhausted Graeme Smith, South Africa were a team hungover from their Edgbaston glory against a revitalised England under new leadership.

After rattling through South Africa, all Kevin Pietersen needed to cap an impressive first day's captaincy was a solid performance by his openers. He nearly got it, but for the loss of Andrew Strauss. During his comeback against New Zealand earlier in the year, he was patience personified. But South Africa have persisted on and around his off stump and repeatedly had him fishing meekly and edging into the slips. It happened again today as Makhaya Ntini angled one across him, leaving Alastair Cook and Ian Bell - promoted to No. 3 for the immediate future - to steady England.

Whether inspired by South Africa's complacency, or energised by the new Pietersen-led regime, England's bowlers were aggressive and menacing for the most part. Yet, in the morning session, they were left frustrated by a stodgy Smith and their own poor fielding. Indeed Smith should have been held off Harmison to the very first ball of the match, but it flew through Alastair Cook's hands at gully. Admittedly, he was a little close, but it was the first of three misses from Cook during a disappointing first session by England.

All changed after lunch. Hashim Amla took full toll of Stuart Broad's continued waywardness. Three fours were crashed through the covers, off front and back foot, as Broad's loopy half-volleys offered little threat whatsoever. Smith's career average briefly crept over 50 during his innings, but so too did Broad's with the ball. At 103 for 1 South Africa were in control - until, that is, Harmison returned.

James Anderson picked up three excellent wickets.

Smith survived a close shout for lbw against him but he couldn't resist hooking a well-directed bouncer straight to Anderson at fine-leg. It was the breakthrough England desperately needed and, the very next ball, Harmison cleaned up Amla with a 93mph yorker to rip out his middle stump. Harmison rarely dipped below 87mph throughout the day, and his line was immaculate to both left and right-hander. Jacques Kallis' miserable tour continued, beaten twice by two booming Anderson outswingers before the bowler foxed him with one that went the other way to bring up his 100th Test wicket. South Africa had lost 3 for 2 in eight deliveries and England were suddenly in control.

Flintoff struggled with his left boot - specifically, his big toenail - but this never prevented him bowling a consistent, deadly line and beating the bat time and again. Intriguingly, he became Pietersen's right-hand-man, too, the pair repeatedly discussing fielding positions while Flintoff appeared to be the bowlers' advisor in chief. Pietersen needs to form his own trusted council, and it remains to be seen which of the younger contingent - the likes of Bell and Cook - will be drafted into what Nasser Hussain once labelled the "management team". Pietersen's touchy-feely leadership style was also on rampant display, patting everyone on the back at every opportunity. His tenure will be judged on the success he brings the team - but it will not be dull viewing.

One of Flintoff's underlings, Anderson, continued to bend the ball at pace, and the pressurised position South Africa found themselves in told for Ashwell Prince who slapped him straight to Bell at point. An outswinger did for Mark Boucher as South Africa slipped to 132 for 6 and England had taken 5 for 29 in 10.3 exhilarating overs.

Broad's woes continued as de Villiers pummelled him for two creamy cover-driven fours; smacking him off the back foot before launching a four over the bowler's head. It was a blistering, counter-attacking innings against a young bowler whose confidence had utterly deserted him. Surprisingly, it was to Broad that Pietersen turned straight after tea, and the gamble - it can be called nothing less - paid off when Morne Morkel fended a lifter to Bell at short-leg. He was rewarded for his persistence with a second when Andre Nel edged him behind, but there is a great deal of work to be done to turn him into a world-class allrounder.

After Strauss's predictable demise, Cook and Bell put on 42 for the third wicket and never offered a chance. Bell looked in particularly elegant touch, and he will be only too aware of the need for a ton at his new No.3 position.