Few of Kevin Pietersen's actions lately have endeared him to England's management. It is a reasonable bet that he has succeeded in getting up their collective pipe with his retirement from limited overs cricket, his demands for reinstatement to the Twenty20 team, and his inopportune comments about the manner in which he is treated.
When she was queen of Hollywood, it is thought that Elizabeth Taylor was lower maintenance. But when Pietersen bats as he did yesterday against South Africa he can be forgiven almost everything.
With the cream of the rest of the batting gone to a combination of good bowling, anxiety and foolishness, and disaster looming, he dragged England back into the Second Test and the Investec Series. In a brilliant, intuitive counter-attack, a gold medal exhibition indeed, he scored his 21st Test century, became the eighth England batsman to score 7,000 Test runs, made his second fifty in 52 balls and ended the day on 149no from 212.
Pietersen found help in the nick of time from the debutant, James Taylor, who played with wonderfully compact authority in the most exacting circumstances and shared in a fifth-wicket partnership of 147. Taylor is clearly gifted of temperament as well as of technique and his short stature may be a considerable asset to England.
Standing at 5ft 4in, with Pietersen at the other end a foot taller, it meant that South Africa's fast bowlers had to keep adjusting their lengths, the smaller man staying back in his crease, the taller one thrusting forward. Taylor's contribution to the stand was a mere 34 from 104 balls but it was designed for the situation.
Pietersen was ferociously determined, and if England's position was perilous early in the day, he never declined the opportunity to play aggressively. So dominant was he that by the close of the third day, England, from a position where they were worried about avoiding the follow-on, might have been wondering about forcing their way to an improbable series-levelling victory at 351 for 5, 68 behind.
But as importantly it showed that South Africa are fallible. When Graeme Smith, their captain, hobbled off towards the close after his knee collided with the turf they had further reason to worry. Alviro Petersen, their first innings centurion, was off the field all day with a hamstring strain. Fortune in sport can change quickly.
There is something compulsive about Pietersen's desire to play his strokes and if he is never at home when cabined, cribbed and confined, the policy has often caused his downfall. But yesterday he was in control, even when the tourists, sensing that they ought to go in for the kill, thought he was out of control, high on adrenaline.
The battle for supremacy was never less than fascinating but there were two sublime passages of play. The first came when Pietersen had pottered, by his standards, to his first fifty in 90 balls. Morne Morkel, the giant South African speed merchant who had roughed him up at The Oval last week decided to do so again.
Three men were posted in the deep on the leg side with a short leg under Pietersen's nose, Morkel came round the wicket. It was the scenario for a bouncer war in which the ball was never likely to be aimed lower than Pietersen's ribs and would be more usually targeted at his head. Pietersen was ready for it. He relished it.
At this point South Africa got unlucky. The ploy was only two balls old when Pietersen jabbed a fast, rising short-pitched ball to Hashim Amla at short leg. It went quickly and he did not react in time as the ball hit his stomach. Knowing what was coming, Pietersen thumped the ball twice for four to the mid-wicket fence.
Seizing the day now, he could hardly contain himself when the second new ball came along and tucked into the tourists' gun fast bowler, Dale Steyn. The apogee, the shot that will live in the memory forever, was a cold-blooded drive for six straight back over Steyn's head. This, do not forget, is the best fast bowler in the world.
Only the old triumvirate of Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoff Boycott have scored more Test centuries for England, and Pietersen joined Andrew Strauss on 21. For a short while as the morning progressed, it seemed that Strauss was clinically intent on making it 22. He and his longtime opening partner, Alastair Cook, began proceedings with rigid discipline.
Neither was much of a mind to score runs and with the ball nibbling about this was forgiveable. Then Cook was leg before to a Vernon Philander ball that held its own after a series that had gone across him. His review never looked likely to succeed.
Shortly after lunch, taken early because of a shower, Strauss was persuaded to nudge at a ball from Steyn outside off stump and was caught behind. He might have left it, but the two dismissals that followed were much more culpable.
Jonathan Trott tried to cut a ball that was too full and was caught by Graeme Smith at first slip, as was Ian Bell ten minutes before tea when he flapped flat-footedly outside off. These were not the innings of men trying to podium, as they say these days.
Taylor was immediately composed, off the mark sixth ball with an impeccably off driven four and he kept Pietersen company until inside edging on from Morkel. Greater days should lie ahead for him.
England won toss
South Africa: First innings 419 (A N Petersen 182, G C Smith 52)
England: First innings
*A J Strauss c de Villiers b Steyn 37/0/7/106
A N Cook lbw b Philander 24/0/2/78
I J L Trott c Smith b Steyn 35/0/6/77
K P Pietersen not out 149/1/22/212
I R Bell c Smith b Kallis 11/1/0/29
J W A Taylor b Morkel 34/0/4/104
†M J Prior not out 20/0/3/30
Extras (b5, lb16, w14, nb6) 41
Total (for 5, 105 overs) 351
Fall 2-85, 3-142, 4-173, 5-320.
Still to bat T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, S T Finn.
Bowling M Morkel 27-9-70-1; V D Philander 25-9-63-1; D W Steyn 24-6-92-2; J H Kallis 12-3-34-1; Imran Tahir 16-0-66-0; J P Duminy 1-0-5-0.
Umpires S J Davies (Aus) and R J Tucker (Aus).
TV Umpire Asad Rauf (Pak).
Match referee J J Crowe (NZ)Reuse content