SOUTH AFRICA captain Graeme Smith believes Kevin Pietersen is facing the biggest challenge of his career after a bitterly disappointing safari in the lad of his birth.
Pietersen, who started the series off with a bang in Centurion, could only contribute 12 runs off 42 unconvincing balls as England subsided dismally in front of a packed Wanderers “Bull Ring” on day four of the final Test in Johannesburg.
Needing 243 to make the hosts bat again, England were all out for 169 with the ever-reliable Paul Collingwood (71) providing England’s only real resistance as they handed the Basil D’Oliviera trophy meekly back to the South Africans by an innings and 74 runs.
Gloating over the emphatic way his side snatched a 1-1 draw from a series which looked to have slipped away from them, Smith said: “We had a good game plan for Kevin and it worked for us. He’s one of those guys who has great expectations on his shoulders every time he comes to the crease. The pressure just builds on him, especially after he’s failed a couple of times.
“We just had to keep asking the questions. After the impact he’s had on international cricket over the last couple of years it’s going to be a real challenge for him now. But we’ll keep asking those questions. It’s up to him to find a response.”
Pietersen, out since the second Ashes Test last summer after surgery – and post-operative complications – on his Achilles, appeared in fine form in the opening Test at Centurion when he hit 40 and a top score of 81. But his suicidal run-out there put the Pietermaritzburg-born batsman in the spotlight and nearly led to England’s defeat.
In Durban, at his old home ground of Kingsmead, Pietersen failed to join the run-fest. He was out for 31 when the rest of the upper order were enjoying half-centuries on the way to an innings and 98-run victory.
At Cape Town, England held out for another final-wicket draw despite KP’s worst efforts of 0 and 6 which left captain Andrew Strauss lamenting: “That has to be the most disappointing Test performance of his career.”
Former England captain and SABC commentator Geoffrey Boycott offered to help Piegtersen correct the flaws in his defence but complained “he doesn’t listen to anybody” while there were reports of a bust-up with fans, which were fimly denied.
New Year at Newlands was nasty for Pietersen but in many ways, Johannesburg over the last five days has been even worse. Booed loudly by huge crowds at “The Bull Ring”, he was out for just seven in the first innings and despite a desperate attempt to change his approach, he was hustled off for 12 after batting for an hour and a half, when England needed him most yesterday.
Strauss continues to live in hope. He said: “There are always high expectations surrounding Kevin Pietersen but it must have been hard for him here after a long lay-off. It’s not the easiest thing to come back into the side like that.
“I’m sure he’ll be desperate to prove his class once again. It’s definitely been a frustrating tour for him, but I have no doubt he’ll come back from this.”
Pietersen is not England’s only concern. Stuart Broad came here as an all-rounder but returns home with a bowling average of 33.46 and a batting average of 10.85. Garfield Sobers and Andrew Flintoff sneer in the face of such figures. His constant whining when dismissed did little to endear him to the fans here either.
Highly-rated seamers Jimmy Anderson and Graham Onions enhanced their reputations slightly – though dropping Onions for the final Test in favour of Ryan Sidebottom was a move which will never be fully explained, especially after Onions had twice defied South Africa as a No11 batsman to grab a pair of delightful draws.
Wicketkeeper Matt Prior batted like a buffoon yesterday – he was dropped off his first ball and caught off his second for a duck – and admitted he wasn’t happy with his form going into the Wanderers, where he watched his first big game of cricket.
Jonathan Trott, promising at times but desperately frustrating to watch with all his fiddling at the crease, cannot claim to have set the world alight anymore than Pietersen while Strauss himself has hardly blossomed as he did last time he was out in the land of his birth.
The successes? Alastair Cook has batted his way out of trouble as an opener with a fine century in Durban and further success in Cape Town and Ian Bell has come back with a vengeance. Strauss said yesterday: “Ian’s comeback is exciting for us, but only three batsmen had a decent series. The rest of us, and that includes me, missed out.
“We’ve shown we’re resilient and that we’re hard to beat. But that’s not enough. We’re not good enough at the moment. We have to be more clinical. We all know there is plenty of room for improvement.”
Fair enough. South Africa captain Graeme Smith agrees: “I’m happy with a draw but we could easily have been sitting here 3-1 up.”
There are two reasons England drew this series. Paul Collingwood, England’s “Typical British Bulldog” according to coach Andy Flower, and Graeme Swann, who took a series high 21 wickets and scored one more run than his skipper, including a Test-best 85 in Centurion.
If you’re looking for heroes of this epic safari, look no further than those two. Smith’s verdict: “Swann did well on our pitches but Collingwood is the glue that holds England together.”