Kevin Pietersen was close to tears last night as he described the love he felt from English cricket fans after scoring a century against the nation of his birth here yesterday.
The standing ovation went on so long Pietersen had to step away from his mark to acknowledge it a second time before resuming his innings. "The crowd today were absolutely magnificent," he said. "I cannot thank everyone enough for that appreciation, that applause. It makes me feel so, so loved. It was one of the most emotional two minutes of my career."
England, having been put into bat, closed on a promising 309 for 3 with Pietersen unbeaten on 104, his 13th century in Tests but his first against South Africa. He said the milestone, and the crowd reaction, "ranks up there with walking off the pitch at The Oval after scoring 158 to win the Ashes in 2005".
Pietersen, who moved to England from South Africa seven years ago, citing a lack of opportunities in his native country due to positive discrimination in favour of non-white players, added: "I knew I would have to play well, and do things, to get people on my side. There had been a lot of nonsense about me being originally from South Africa. But sitting here now I feel as English as anyone."
He also paid tribute to his former compatriots, with whom he has exchanged unpleasantries in the past. The South Africans, he said, "have all been brilliant. I've no problem with any of the players. They all congratulated me, Andre Nel gave me a big hug." He added: "I never had a beef with anyone except Graeme [Smith, the captain] and I had an altercation four years ago. That's totally gone now."
The tourists, he added, had even checked on his welfare after he was hit on the helmet early in his innings by a rising ball from Dale Steyn. That blow, he said, "woke me up".
Pietersen had come to the crease in the middle of South Africa's only dominant spell. Having reached 114 for 0, England lost three wickets for three runs in 13 balls. "When we got those two or three quick ones we definitely thought we were right back in the game," said Morne Morkel, who had removed both the openers.
Enter Pietersen. He said that, unlike against South Africa in Barbados during the 2007 World Cup, "when I got stupidly nervous and was all fidgety", he had been relaxed. He did not look it as he attempted a daft single to get off the mark and would have been run out had Makhaya Ntini been more accurate with his throw or Hashim Amla able to collect it at the stumps. "The script is written, and someone was writing a pretty incredible script for me today," he said of the incident.
Pietersen then carefully played himself in, aided by Ian Bell going for his shots at the other end. The pair put together an unbroken stand of 192 for the fourth wicket. "The way Belly played today was remarkable," Pietersen said. "All the pressure he was under will have gone away. He batted beautifully." He added: "It is now vital we push on. We have already had words in the dressing room. Day one is England's day but there are five days in a Test match and against a side like South Africa we have to tighten the screws and get on top of them. Today is gone."
The memory, though, will linger, for KP longer than anyone.