As fresh starts go this wasn’t too shabby from England as they wrapped up a consolation six-wicket victory on the final day at The Oval. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook broke the back of the run chase with a positive opening stand of 123, before Makhaya Ntini and Paul Harris claimed two wickets apiece to take away a little of the gloss. But a week after England were plunged into uncertainty, Andrew Flintoff signed off the victory with a six to give Kevin Pietersen a winning start.
Given the week he has had, the stage appeared set for Pietersen to hit the winning runs until he edged a catch to short leg with 15 required. As captain of England, Pietersen will have to get used to his side giving him some stressful times, but the opening stand meant that, here at least, the late wobble didn’t do any more than make victory appear less empathic. Tough challenges lie ahead for him, not least the forthcoming one-day series and tour of India, but he couldn’t have done much more at the start of his reign.
Claiming victories after a series has gone was a speciality of England during the 1990s. While this success won’t soften the blow of losing the series, it has boosted spirits after a trying couple of weeks when two captains resigned and the questions were being asked about the set-up. With a new leader to impress England were motivated – while South Africa couldn’t quite summon one last push – and they produced some periods of vibrant cricket.
Whatever South Africa say, they weren’t really up for this contest. They expended such huge amounts of physical and emotional energy at Edgbaston that they couldn’t rouse themselves. Makhaya Ntini and, especially, Morne Morkel wasted the new ball and the openers had very little to play at. Strauss after a successful run against New Zealand was back under pressure and was given a life on 4, when he clipped Morkel firmly to Ashwell Prince at leg gully, only for the umpire to call a no-ball. It summed up Morkel’s session.
The increase in momentum came from Cook who latched onto a couple of short balls from Ntini and also drove nicely down the ground, a sign that hours with Andy Flower in the nets are paying off. Cook made the most of attacking fields set by Graeme Smith with controlled edges down to third man, and both he and Strauss countered Paul Harris with intent. Despite some spin out of the footmarks they used their feet to disrupt his line and length, taking him through the leg side with confident whips.
Cook reached his fourth half-century of the series with a crunching back-foot drive off Jacques Kallis. After the sleepy opening 45 minutes 98 runs were added in the next 18 overs of the morning and they continued a similar vein after the break before South Africa made a breakthrough, Cook driving at wide ball from Ntini and edging to first slip. It was another opportunity to go begging for Cook and although he ends with a series average of 47 there is a sense of unfulfilment. However, without ever looking in top form he has continued to score runs, which is a testament to his strength of character.
Strauss slowly found more fluency, bring out a perfect on-drive, and went to his first half-century of the series from 95 balls. Ian Bell never settled during his short stay and he paid the price for moving across his stumps when Ntini bowled him behind his legs. An inconvenience became a wobble when, in the next over from Harris, Strauss got an inside edge to Smith at leg slip. Three wickets had gone for 24 and two new batsmen were at the crease.
However, any momentary concerns were settled as Paul Collingwood found the boundary and Pietersen’s late departure for 12 was about the only thing that hasn’t fitted with his script in the last week. South Africa have deservedly taken the series honours, but Pietersen’s England have regained some pride.
– About Cricket –
Sandesh Kumar Jaggi