Alastair Cook was a proud man after leading England out for the first time on Sunday but conceded that he could not have been given a tougher induction to international cricket captaincy after suffering at the hands of a ruthless South Africa. The Essex opener, thrust into the role after regular Twenty20 captain Paul Collingwood was ruled out on the morning of the match due to a stiff back, saw his side taken apart by 84 runs at Centurion.
It came after a world-record 170-run opening partnership between Graeme Smith (88 off 44 balls) and Loots Bosman (94 off 45) helped the Proteas reach 241 for six - the second highest 20-over total ever. The response was a painful one for England and they were always behind in the game before eventually finishing on 157 for eight, thanks largely to a half-century from Jonathan Trott. Despite the loss that helped the hosts square the series at 1-1, Cook was pleased with the honour of leading his country. "I don't think it comes much tougher than that, so credit to how Smith and Bosman played at the top of the order," said Cook, who was fined 20 per cent of his match fee for England's slow over rate. Everything we tried didn't really work and they punished us.
"It's tough, I was trying to keep the emotions as calm as you can. You try everything to keep calm, but it was hard. "Everyone was busting their gut to try and bowl to the plan, but as I said the margins were quite small and our skills were probably not good enough to deal with it." Asked when he found out he would be captain, he added: "This morning [Sunday]. Obviously we knew last night it was touch and go with Colly. Unfortunately he didn't make it.
"Whatever happened today, I actually enjoyed it. I'll go to bed very disappointed with the result, but I tried my best and I captained my country for the first time." Apart from Trott's 51, there was also another major positive for England following the return of Kevin Pietersen, who took the place of Collingwood. It was the first bit of action for Pietersen since the second Ashes Test against Australia in July, after which he underwent surgery to his troublesome right Achilles.
Pietersen was only scheduled to return in a warm-up game on Tuesday, but due to the shortage of batsmen in the squad and regular captain Andrew Strauss' decision to no longer play the shortest form of the game, it meant a quick return for the Hampshire batsman. Cook said there was no doubt that Pietersen was fit to return, adding: "He's made some great progress over the last few days, in the last week after coming over here.
"Ideally he probably would have had another match and more match practice. Since the Ashes Test match he hasn't batted, but with Colly going out he had to come in. He's 100 per cent fully fit. The only thing was the match practice.He would have liked a knock in the middle before, but it wasn't to be. "He's been itching to get back since that second Test match. Obviously he's had a real tough problem with his Achilles, which he has thankfully got over. He was desperate himself. Straussy, he said himself he doesn't want to be part of the Twenty20 plans, so there was no question of him coming back in."
The South Africa coach Mickey Arthur was pleased with the win, especially after the one-run Duckworth/Lewis loss to the visitors in the rain-shortened first game on Friday. He said: "We were obviously very frustrated the other night. You never know what could have happened, we could have lost a couple of wickets down the line but we backed ourselves to actually get over the line. "We were really keen to make amends today and it's really satisfying."
Arthur also felt his side would gain more than their opponents out of the two matches despite the series ending level at 1-1. He added: "I think the emphatic way in which we won, I guess we come out of the weekend far better than England have. "That's if it does count for anything down the line because we go into a different format (50-over one-day internationals). But we probably do take a little more from it. I think we're probably a little more settled and a little more unpredictable."
Cook and the rest of the England squad will now look to get the defeat out of their system as quickly as possible and travel to Potchefstroom for a 50-overs match against a South Africa "A" side on Tuesday in preparation for the five one-day match series. * PA Sport