England's new captain Kevin Pieterson got off to a dream start today as his side made relatively easy work of the 197 runs they needed at the start of play. It looked as if Pieterson would be there to hit the winning runs to ensure a truly fairytale finish after being only the third captain in history to hit a century in his first innings as captain. However, a rather subdued innings from the skipper saw him fall to the very ordinary spinner Paul Harris and it was left to Andrew Flintoff to hit a Pieterson-esqe straight six to take England over the finishing line.
At the start of the day South Africa knew the only way they could win was to get early wickets and apply some pressure on England's fragile middle order. They came out of the blocks very well, bowling tight lines with pace and England's openers were having a job just staying in. In the ninth over, with England only having scored 10 runs, Morne Morkel had the tentative Andrew Strauss caught at leg gully. However, 'no ball' was called by the umpire much to the relief of Strauss who is the latest England batsmen to be playing for his future.
Once the new ball had got to twenty overs old, England had reached 69-0 and one felt that even England, with their infamous collapses always possible, had surely done enough. England continued to bat with little trouble before Cook edged to Graeme Smith for an otherwise assured 67.
This was the 3rd time in the series and the 7th in Cook's career that he's got out in the 60's and this must now be a psychological issue which he needs to address. The mark of a great batsmen is one who converts the 60's into 100's and although Cook's talent is undoubted, the next 12 months will determine whether he becomes regarded as a good or great England opening batsmen.
Cook's dismissal sparked a mini collapse as England lost 3 wickets in 8 overs with first Ian Bell having his leg stumped knocked over by Makhaya Ntini and then Strauss falling to Harris at leg gully. By this time though, England only needed 50 runs with 7 wickets remaining with Flintoff seeing them home after a nice looking 25 not out from the rejuvenated Paul Collingwood.
Captain Pieterson will be very happy that his first game as captain ended in victory but this win should be met with the upmost caution. It is true that in sport you can only beat who is put in front of you but this was a very different South Africa team that had previously gone 2-0 up in the series.
At least 8 of the 20 wickets that fell to give England victory were from shots that we did not see from the South Africa batsmen in the first three tests and it must be remembered that this game was only really relevant for one team. South Africa won this series for a number of reasons with focus and doggedness at the crease being the main one.
In this series, England batsmen got to a half-century 14 times and converted just 4 of these into a hundred. In contrast South Africa converted 7 out of 11 half century's into century's. Moving forward, Kevin Pieterson and Peter Moores must work together to solve England's inconsistency with the bat and do a lot more work on simply when to leave the ball alone. AB De Villiers and Neil McKenzie in particular were excellent throughout the series at leaving the ball, wearing the England bowlers down and capitalising fully on the bad balls. On at least 3 occasion each, Strauss, Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell and Pieterson were all guilty of getting out to balls that should have been left well alone. Whether this is lack of focus, impatience or just poor shot selection needs to be identified before the winter.
If Pieterson needs to work on the sides batting he should be more than content with the bowlers at his disposal even if it has taken the whole series to find the best set to lead England. In Flintoff, an in-form Steve Harmison, James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom; Pieterson has four pace bowlers who give him different skills to use depending on situations and playing conditions. Harmison and Flintoff's pace and bounce compliment Anderson and Sidebottom's swing extremely well. Add to this an up and coming all-rounder in Stuart Broad and England's best spinner for twenty years, Monty Panesar and all looks rosy on the bowling front. This is even without arguably England's best bowler this century, Simon Jones. If Jones can prove he can bowl 25 overs in a day on a consistent basis then Pieterson will have one mighty headache to deal with.
Other than trying to help the other batsmen's mindset and focus, Pieterson's main challenge will be trying to find a balance with this England team. Their fragilty with the bat means that 6 batsmen are needed. However, England have proved a lot more capable of getting 20 wickets in a test when they play 5 bowlers. With the inclusion of a wicketkeeper needed you are left with the position of needing to play 12 players but being unable to do so.
One solution, which Pieterson must give strong consideration to is to recall Matt Prior. The Sussex stopper is the best batting keeper available with a County Championship average of over 50 this season. With Prior batting at 6, Flintoff at 7 and Broad at 8, England would have a very strong middle/late order which should return 70+ on most occasions.
One of the first remarks from Pieterson after he was made captain is that each batsmen needs to take more responsibility. This is certainly true and playing five batters does leave them with nowhere to hide. 4 pace bowlers and 1 spinner would then mean that the bowlers stayed fresh as the overs would be shared out a little bit more.
With the likes of Paul Horton, Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah and Robert Key waiting in the wings should any batsmen be dropped it is exciting times for this England side. But potential now needs to be realised and the England management team need to be less forgiving to the batsmen that continue to fail.
The next 12 months leading up to the Ashes series will certainly be interesting with Pieterson at the helm. Lets just hope he is still in charge come May 2009, at least that should mean a successful winter for England. Now the real test begins for the new man.