THE hostile hordes of Centurion won’t stop Kevin Pietersen making “a massive impact” when the first Test gets underway against South Africa tomorrow.
Just before I snapped the pre-Test team picture above - and got it on the net before anybody else! - England captain Andrew Strauss said this morning: “It really isn’t an issue for us where our players are born. We’ve got the best 11 players in England out on the field. And knowing KP, he will have a massive impact on this series.”
But there is no question Pietersen, born in Pietermartizburg, will get it in the neck from a public holiday crowd of around 16,000 tomorrow – not just because he is playing for England but because he is an English-speaking public school boy born in KwaZulu Natal.
This particularly Afrikaans part of South Africa has no love for the English or the English-speaking. And as their English-speaking captain Graeme Smith, from Johannesburg 35 miles south, reiterated this morning: “I wouldn’t say it’s a priority of mine to have Kevin as a friend.
“He’s very different to me. He comes across as a loner - I’ve noticed that about him. There’s some mutual respect now but I don’t think we’ll ever be friends. He can expect a hostile reception.”
That shouldn’t worry Pietersen, and it certainly doesn’t worry Strauss, born in Johannesburg himself. He said: “This tour has been unfamiliar territory for KP. He’s had his first real break from cricket for God knows how long because of his operation and he’s had to find his feet on this trip.
“But I’m very happy with him. His has trained extremely hard and his preparation has been good.”
Pietersen, who made 29 in his only previous appearance at Centurion on the current tour, feels the boos have diminished since his debut for England in South Africa five years ago.
He says: : "I find it funny in a way. I have had it since the start - the baptism of fire I had at the Wanderers that day, nothing will ever be as bad as that, and I just draw confidence from the way I played in that series. I scored three centuries.
"A few people booing me or abusing me on the boundary, well, I am sure they have better things to do. I don't take it as a personal thing. The crowd want to try to rile you so you don't stay too long at the crease.
"I have not had one confrontational moment with anybody since I have been in South Africa. The public have been fantastic off the field, even in bars where people have been intoxicated I have never had a problem here."
Perhaps more worrying if KP’s form. In all the hoopla surrounding England’s shock 2-1 win in the one-day series last month, Pietersen scored just 52 runs at 17.33.
But Strauss, happy to report he is able to pick from a full squad after the early spate of injuries, insists: “Kevin was looking better and better in the warm-ups. I have no doubts about him”.
South Africa, caught up in the hype over Makhaya Ntini’s 100th cap, will only be able to use Jacques Kallis as a batsman but asked if this will make the world’s greatest all-rounder “mentally vulnerable”, Strauss laughed: “Jacques and vulnerability aren’t two words I’d put together. I’m sure if he can only do his talking with the bat, he’ll be keen to do it.
“But this England squad is boisterous, happy, excited. The first session of the first Test match can’t decide the series but it can be important for momentum. And we’re all eager to get into this contest.”