ANDREW STRAUSS today backed Kevin Pietersen to make his considerable mark on the decisive fourth and final Test against South Africa which starts at The Wanderers tomorrow.
And the England captain, who has proved an accomplished motivator on this epic tour, reminded his master batsman: “The last Test in Cape Town was one of the most disappointing performances of Kevin’s career. He is due a big one. What happened a Newlands was difficult for him but it means he is due a score.”
Pietersen hit a fine 81 before running himself out in that drawn first Test, failed to join the run fest in the innings win at Durban and then scored a meagre 0 and 6 at Newlands. Statistically, it’s hard to argue against the Pietermaritzburg-born giant being the weakest link in the last Test, where England were left holding on for a draw by a single wicket for the second time in the series.
But Strauss said: “Kevin is the man for the big occasion. He has that quality, so much skill, he hasn’t lost that.”
Pietersen needed surgery on his Achilles tendon during the Ashes series last summer and post-op complications made this his comeback tour after a six month break. Strauss said: “Maybe people are reading too much into Cape Town. Because he’s been out for a long time, it’s easy to focus on the fact he’s had a couple of bad games.
“But his focus has been exactly the same as it always has been on this tour. He has worked hard, he is batting well in the nets. He's the man for the big occasion. He will come back and score runs, make those big performances. Soon. The next couple of Tests. I just hope it’s this one.”
When I asked South Africa captain Graeme Smith – not renowned for his fondness of former schoolboy rival KP (that's them together above, when Pietersen was England captain) - if he feared Pietersen would bounce back on what promises to be a difficult track at The Wanderers, he frowned and said: “I’m not having sleepless nights about that. Any one England’s top six could produce a performance.
“But we have played great cricket in this series, we just haven’t been able to produce the knock-out blow. Does anybody have any advice on how to get Graham Onions out?
“But look, you have to give England credit too. This has been a great series, good for cricket.”
Strauss, who goes into the final showdown 1-0 up in the series, said: “It’s nice to go out there knowing we can’t lose the series.
“But we’ll be going into this Test trying to win it, the same as before. The only time the pressure might affect you is on the fifth day. At this point we’re here to win, not draw.
“If we have the mindset we only need to draw, you get hesitant, you hand the momentum over.”
Strauss puts his side's success in this series down to team spirit. And he really does seem to have a point. Training here has been lively, loud... not like it normally is at the end of a long tour.
He said: “We recognise we’ve got a long way to go as a group. We all understood the challenge coming out here. Our work on this tour has been exceptional.
“We’ve put in some gutsy performances. But it will be judged on what we do in this game. We recognise that.
“I think the team spirit on this tour is tangible. It’s about having the right sort of people around, fostering that feeling, including players, not leaning too heavily on senior players. Five years ago a small group of older players did all the talking, ran all the meetings. I was one of them. I've had to rethink that.
“It’s something you’ve always got to work hard on, team spirit. It would be arrogant to think it will always be this way. You get teams with 11 great players but you can have a side that is greater than the sum of it’s parts if you work hard at it.
“It’s not about how many runs you score, it’s how much they give to the team. It’s something we have to work on in the future as well.
”It has been a long tour but it’s not hard to get up for this match. None of us are feeling tired right now, there’s plenty of energy and motivation around.
“We may feel tired after day five here. But not until then.”
South Africa will give seamer Wayne Parnell his debut here after Friedel De Wet's back gave out in Cape Town - and they may go in without spinner Paul Harris. But Strauss insists: “It hasn’t crossed our minds to play an all-seam attack. Graeme Swann has been brilliant for us. Our seamers have done a good job. Our three seamers can get 20 wickets.
“I think we’re confident we can take 20 wickets, we showed in Durban we can do that. We have to fight hard, as a batting unit we didn’t do ourselves justice in the first innings in Cape Town. But we have to show guts again here like we did in the second innings."
For Smith, this is all or nothing. Like everybody else out here, he believes his side has been the better side in this series but he accepts: "Credit to England for their resilience. This series we haven’t hit the huge highs. It’s been a touch disappointing. Tomorrow we have the chance to retain the Basil D'Oliveira trophy if we win the Test and draw the series.
“In two out of the three Tests, we’ve just lacked the final blow on the last day. When England have been put under pressure they’ve handled it well.
“It’s hard to sit here and complain. We have chats about taking ourselves to a new level. We haven’t reached the heights of 2008, but we have the chance to do that now, in this Test."