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James Lawton: Desperate Pietersen incapable of halting his downward slide

The key was Steyn's ability to undermine English confidence almost every time he ran in

England were looking for a touch of greatness, a little more authority to add to the spirit which in some ways astonishingly brought them here 1-0 up over opponents who had twice outplayed them.

Unfortunately, when they found it – and it was as early as the first ball – it belonged to somebody else.

Dale Steyn, South Africa's best pace bowler, had more than enough of it to give his team a strong grip on the final Test, which they need to win if they are not to spend much of the rest of their lives wondering quite what went wrong.

In fact, Steyn bowled so brilliantly that he also rearranged his status along with claiming five England wickets.

South Africa's most consistently menacing bowler confirmed that status at the world level. He was already ranked No 1, but if rankings are invariably accurate they sometimes do not tell the whole truth. Here, the slight (he stands a mere 5ft 11in) but ferociously committed and beautifully rhythmic Eastern Transvaaler entirely fitted the profile of a No 1 man.

As a relatively callow youth he raced to become South Africa's fastest to 100 wickets – in 20 Tests, two fewer than his now legendary compatriot Allan Donald.

Yesterday, at 26, his 5 for 51 in 13.5 overs was the single most dynamic contribution to England's feeble total of 180 after captain Andrew Strauss elected to bat on a wicket widely touted to be tailored to South Africa's need for a result.

But if the wicket encouraged bowling of line and length and pace – the holy trinity of a man whose mantra is the splendidly succinct, "run in, bowl quick, scare people" – the key was Steyn's ability to undermine English confidence almost every time he ran to the wicket.

At 90mph-plus Steyn had Strauss caught brilliantly by Hashim Amla off the first delivery of the match, then claimed the wickets of Ian Bell and Matt Prior, the relentlessly swashbuckling tail-ender Graeme Swann and Ryan Sidebottom. It was a mesmerising effort and even England had to allow that probably it was a case of the scales of justice reclaiming a little balance.

England's Paul Collingwood, who produced the most sustained and dogged defiance in the critical third Test in Cape Town, reported that in Steyn's assault he had never faced a better spell of pace bowling that had not resulted in his losing his wicket. Steyn's masterclass came with the second new ball when the South Africans pushed so hard to level the series.

Then, it seemed he could do anything he wanted with the ball except hit a wicket or the edge of the bat. England played and missed more times than a drunk at a Las Vegas slot machine.

Now, though, Steyn was rewarded steadily and for England it was an unchallenged draining of the confidence of a team who believed that the next few days might easily confirm them as the fastest upwardly mobile side in world cricket and, with a series victory here, genuine contenders for a No 1 rank.

That, Steyn apart, was also made to look something of a fantasy because too much of the ground that lies between the fighting cricket England have recently been producing and performance of authentic composure and class was lost.

Collingwood showed sufficient nerve to close the morning session – during which at one point England had tumbled to 39 for 4 – with a mighty pull for six against Jacques Kallis and earlier he had done the same to South Africa's quick but raw left-arm paceman Wayne Parnell.

But that was aggressive defiance spread too thinly through the England ranks and when Collingwood went three short of his half-century, caught by JP Duminy off Steyn's gangling strike partner Morne Morkel, England were condemned to another battle for survival at 115 for 5, and this time without a heroic contribution from the dropped hero of Centurion and Cape Town, Graham Onions.

England reckoned that Onions had bowled, and maybe batted, himself to a standstill in the three previous Tests. Now they were hoping for a psychological growth spurt but it never began to happen; indeed, the final unravelling ran so deep that all England's progress through a hazardous year, with the dramatic Ashes victory the counterpoint of the chaos in which they travelled to West Indies for a losing series, is in danger of some disintegration come the weekend.

Bell looked as though he was embarking on another innings in which his previous failures to exploit the best of his talent would be subject to further purging. But then he was not so much bowled as eviscerated by a superb ball from Steyn.

Here, we had a collision of ambition and technique and Steyn, it has to be said, won while hardly coming off the bridle.

This was deflating enough but England's worst, and widening nightmare, is the continued deterioration of both Kevin Pietersen's confidence and timing. He pulled Morkel into the hands of Parnell at mid-on and when he left it was with the troubled walk of a man who appears to have lost his way.

When he went, with seven against his name, England were 32 for 3, and all but broken. The sadness of seeing a player who owns the possibility of greatness slipping away from the height of his powers, at a time when he should be moving towards the zenith of his talent, is acute in any circumstances. There was, however, a still sharper poignancy here when you remembered that this is a ground where Pietersen first returned to his homeland in the colours of England and not so much endured the derision of his former compatriots but turned it against them with brilliant strokeplay and apparently the lightest of hearts.

Yesterday he was nothing so much as the most desperate reflection of England's plight. He played one beautiful shot through midwicket, dispatching Morkel to the boundary. He stood and admired it for a moment, like an ageing man recalling wistfully something he could do so well in his youth.

For the record the man who laboured back to the pavilion is 29 – or a mere three years older than Dale Steyn. For at least a few moments they might have been separated by a disappointing lifetime.