James Lawton: Flashing blade defies wizard's dark alchemy

As Kevin Pietersen attempted to close in on the sixth century of his still infant Test career in the small hours of England's wintery morning, his adopted country had reason for a gratitude unbounded by the details of a scoreboard flashing a most improbable Ashes story in the near-tropical heat of Queensland.

Despite producing their first seriously heroic resistance to Australia's unvarnished desire to exact the cruellest possible revenge, England still knew that avoiding defeat, let alone achieving a victory that would be utterly unparalleled in the history of the game, was an ambition that had to be touched by the wildest fantasy.

Yet thanks hugely to Pietersen, and the magnificently obdurate spirit of his yeoman ally Paul Collingwood, they also knew something else. They realised that, amid the psychological debris of what at times over the last four days had threatened to be as much a disembowelling as simply a heavy loss in this first grotesquely unbalanced Test, something precious had been rediscovered.

It was nothing less than the belief fashioned in the glorious summer of 2005, and a first Ashes series win in 18 years, that English cricket might just have enough raw talent and competitive spirit to challenge successfully the team that had so long, and at times so arrogantly, dominated the world game.

This idea, and not without reason, has come under heavy ridicule this last week as the Aussie old guard of captain Ricky Ponting and key, world-beating lieutenants like Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and, ultimately, Shane Warne, insisted with their deeds more than their words that what happened in that astounding English summer was nothing more or less than an outright "aberration".

Ponting made matchwood, it seemed of England's renewed ambition with his orgy of run-getting, 256 of them for just one dismissal, and then his lordly decision not to enforce the follow-on, despite a first-innings lead of 445.

Ponting said, in so many words, that he could beat England however he pleased. He could wait for the cracks in the wicket to widen while Warne licked his lips. He could rest up the master paceman, Glenn McGrath. He held his former conquerors in the palm of his hand and they were to be crushed at his signal, his whim.

Then the 26-year-old South African-bred Pietersen walked to the wicket and into the middle of his team's latest crisis, 91 for 3 in pursuit of a winning total of 648.

He he looked about as intimidated as a crack white hunter adjusting his sights. When he was obliged to call off his mayhem and return to camp, undefeated at 92 and unfazed by the fact that, in rushes of blood, Collingwood, who made 96, and his inspirational captain and friend, Andrew Flintoff, had just thrown away their wickets, it was plainly with the utmost reluctance.

He had simply smashed aside the Australian assumption that victory could come on their terms whenever they chose to exact them - and no one was affected more by this startling intrusion into perceived reality than his erstwhile friend and Hampshire team-mate Warne.

For the moment, at least, and perhaps longer than the term of a contest which was suddenly alive, this celebrity friendship is unquestionably in abeyance. That much was made certain in the flashpoint which came when Warne, the master manipulator of competitive edge, gave way to the frustration created by the rough and commanding treatment he was receiving from Pietersen. He threw the ball in the general direction of the wicket, but it was one the big 26-year-old was guarding and the ball was heading for his head. Pietersen angrily swatted it away and gave Warne the coldest of stares.

At last true battle had been engaged and we can sure that, however the series develops, there will be no dwindling in this contest of wills.

It is beautifully balanced. At 37, Warne remains a sublime spin bowler of endless creative instinct. By the end of the fourth day, and despite,at times, a terrible buffeting from both Pietersen and Collingwood, he had restocked with scalps the belt that had gone unreplenished in England's pathetic earlier collapse to 157. He had lured Collingwood and Flintoff to their downfall, had invaded again the confidence of Ian Bell, the one English batsman to strike a note of authority in the first innings - and handed him his third duck in his last four Test appearances against Australia - and wiped away the promise of the tall, promising opener Alastair Cook.

That was a decent afternoon's work for even the world's greatest spin bowler, but you could see it meant nothing as long as Pietersen controlled the square so imperiously. There were eruptions of tension each time Pietersen exerted his wonderfully fluent talent, not least when he reached his half-century which a square drive of such withering ease Warne could not conceal the expression of a scolded schoolboy.

It was as though Pietersen had picked out the heart of the Australian mystique and was attacking it with a single-mindedness built on the conviction that if you destroy Warne's confidence, if you suggest to him that you are untouched by the destructive power of any of his dark alchemy, you are likely to diminish not just the principal tormentor but his entire team.

For the Australian vice-captain Adam Gilchrist, obliged to lead the team in the absence of Ponting, who required treatment on a back injury, it was as severe a test of nerve as that faced by Warne every time he bowled into the maw of the Pietersen cannon. You cannot withdraw even a blood-stained Warne from the action without the heaviest loss of face. You have to trust in his ability to find a way to do damage, and Gilchrist's reward was the sight of Collingwood and Flintoff broken by Warne's cunning.

Pietersen, though, was beyond sorcery. On a day when Flintoff had failed to reproduce his magnificent presence in the field, and at the bowling crease, and when his No 2 Strauss had, for the second time in the match, thrown away his wicket with shocking irresponsibility, Pietersen had given England a weight, a purpose and an aura which might yet rescue a campaign which some feared had died before it could possibly begin.

The ferociously competitive Langer, who had been granted the chance to complete the century that had narrowly eluded him in Australia's first innings, conceded the quality of Pietersen generously enough. He said that he and his team-mates could easily identify with the style of a most powerfully gifted opponent. He was an outstanding talent shot through with the urge to fight every step of the way. In that way, he was an honorary Australian. It was a nice thought but it paled against a warmer reality. England had every reason to embrace the foreigner who had announced himself as committed as any native son.

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