Cow Corner

England holding out for a hero

You might have missed it, but in the run-up to the one-day international series with South Africa, England ascended, courtesy of other results, to being the number one side in ODI cricket.

Admittedly, they've been the form team — they've won their last 10 matches on the trot — but even to the captain Alastair Cook, it felt a bit premature to be top of the pile.

Their advantage at the top of the standings was more fragile than Kevin Pietersen's ego (apparently) — just a single defeat to number two-ranked South Africa would see them slip to second place.

And with Hashim Amla turning this tour of England into an extended episode of Record Breakers, the hosts needed a batting hero.

Someone who could take England to a more than challenging target of 288 in 50 overs against a ferocious and varied attack.

Could that have been KP? Who knows? But the fact that the exiled England man was 90 miles down the road at Taunton flaying Somerset around the ground for a run-a-ball 163 could hardly have been more poignant.

Pietersen might just as easily have been bowled for a first-ball duck had he taken to the field for England — it was an awkward, spinning pitch, and South Africa's bowling options included a full-time left-arm spinner and three more than capable part-time tweakers.

But there is a nagging sense that England have their line-up wrong, and their focus askew.

There is also Jonny Bairstow waiting on the sidelines, the powerful middle order man who showed huge character to produce two contrasting half-centuries in the Lord's Test a week ago, can find no place in the limited-overs line-up at present, with the off-colour and undercooked Ravi Bopara retained.

Once skipper Alastair Cook fell to the second ball of the innings, bested by a yorker, the chase looked as difficult as overhauling Amla's 'quickest to 3,000 ODI runs' record. When you're 12 innings quicker than anyone else in history, and your nearest rival is one Sir Viv Richards, you know you've done something very special.

There were lots of starts for England — numbers two to seven in the batting order all managed scores of between 16 and 45 — but just the one partnership worth more than 50 runs.

The talk in the England camp has been of the need for 'trust and mutual respect', but the reality is that neither Trust nor Mutual Respect can come in to bat when you're struggling in a run chase.

Is Pietersen the answer? He is no cure-all — the man whose batting will turn England's fortunes around. Remember that he played the first two Tests of this series, when England went 1-0 down. Remember too, that regardless of his current relationship with the ECB, he had already retired from limited-overs cricket — and England had motored along quite happily without his services to win the two series against West Indies and Australia earlier this summer without his help.

Ian Bell has played some of the best one-day innings of his career since taking KP's place in the team. Eoin Morgan has developed into a remarkable middle-order finisher in the last couple of seasons. Players come, and players go.

Pietersen is a divisive personality. Asked on the over-by-over coverage whether they themselves would select Kevin for the next match, 53% said yes, while 47% said no. And though it could not be measured, Cowers suspects that very few respondents were torn — Pietersen is cricketing marmite, and opinions are strongly held and hard to shake.

England have, for now at least, made their choice. But that means there is a pressure to start proving that it is the right choice.

England need a batting hero. It doesn't matter who that is. But while they stumble on without a leading man, the stock of the man who isn't there will rise.

If England want to put Pietersen in the past, nothing will do the job quite so effectively as winning cricket matches. For all the time that Pietersen thumps hundreds for fun away from international duty, while the players reportedly least keen on his presence turn in disappointing performances, the shadow will linger over the team.