There might have been greater examples of playing sport under pressure. There might have been instances of turning round careers, matches, series in more improbable circumstances. But not many.
Paul Collingwood went to the wicket yesterday with England in despair. As far as most people could recall, only the Creature from the Black Lagoon had been in a deeper mire. Everything was on the line: the Test, the series, his career and those of a few others. England were 104 for 4 and a mere 21 runs ahead in the Third Test.
Three hours and 25 minutes later he left the arena. He was 101 not out – five runs more than the total he had scored in 10 previous visits to the crease this season. It was a tour de force. Neither in its elegance nor its style was it up to much but for sheer determination and cussedness it was a monument to endure.
Collingwood was aided by some feckless South Africa bowling. Shorn of their fearsome strike bowler, Dale Steyn, they bowled all over the shop. It was like watching England.
But that is not to diminish the manner in which Collingwood approached his enormous task. Perhaps any apprehension was settled by batting with Kevin Pietersen, perhaps he thought he had nothing to lose.
He and Pietersen brooked no retreat. It has been Michael Vaughan's honourable mantra throughout his captaincy that his players should express themselves and, indeed, he himself had attempted, ultimately in vain, to follow it to the letter.
Whether they were doing it for their captain hardly mattered but Pietersen and Collingwood played to Vaughan's template. Pietersen played all the old tricks – the bottom-handed drive from outside off and the bizarrely brutal reverse sweep were particular favourites – but Collingwood was the more unexpected. Fed to some extent by the crass South African bowling (could it be their old failing of palpitations induced by the sight of the finish line?) his was a bravura effort. He attacked with relish, pulling, cutting, occasionally upper cutting, forcing through leg.
The game's momentum seemed to have changed. But then suddenly Pietersen, intent on bullying Paul Harris some more, was poleaxed by the left-arm spinner as he drove him to deep mid-on. In the same over, Andrew Flintoff was caught off bat and pad. The complexion of the summer had altered again.
After a brief retrenchment, Collingwood was off. Tim Ambrose was all vigilant immobility at the other end but England were still rattling along at four an over.
Collingwood had no right to be playing in this match. Dropped for the second Test for poor form, he had not played a first-class innings since. But as he advanced down the pitch and lofted Harris gloriously for six over long on to bring up his sixth Test hundred, logic went into the seventh row of the stand with it.
View from the boundary: What fans are saying about England's performance
"Fair play to Colly, regardless of whether he goes on. His Test career must have been in the balance before this innings and he's played a typically nuggety knock when he (and we) have needed it most. He actually middled a few too, which isn't something he'd done this summer before today." - The Boy Hairdresser, http://cricketfansforum.net
"I am delighted that Colly got his hundred, ESPECIALLY as it was a hundred in such dire circumstances – but I see a pattern appearing. Strauss, Bell and now Colly all got to within an innings of losing their place, and all came back to make fantastic innings. Is this a sign that England lack a certain intensity in their batting normally?" - pete.h, www.barmyarmy.com
"Cook, Vaughan and Bell all need public floggings for their dismissals, and then KP throws it away when SA were there for the taking. Barring something sensational over the next 24 hours, this series is looking terminal for captain and, possibly, the coach who has presided over the complacency that has developed over the last year and a bit." - wpdavid, forum.cricketweb.net
"It is the context in which Pietersen got out which has annoyed people. We were really controlling the match, the wheels were coming off for the Saffers, then KP runs down the pitch and hits it down to long on and it's all fallen apart again. You can't help but think he threw his wicket away. There is attacking/counter-attacking, and then there is just stupidly reckless." - Beefy, www.cricket247.org
"[The England coach, Peter Moores] is the Steve McClaren of cricket: a mediocre Englishman who spouts inane management-speak platitudes undoing the good work of an under-appreciated foreigner." - BoyBrumby, forum.cricketweb.netReuse content