Kevin Pietersen does not like being upstaged, least of all by an event as inconsequential as the Olympics, so it came as little surprise to see him focus his mind, hone his skills and post a majestic hundred in his first innings as England captain here yesterday. Pietersen has the enviable but not coincidental knack of rising to the biggest of occasions even though, in his moment of triumph, he was not totally true to his word.
When Pietersen was unveiled as England captain on Monday he said that he would not alter the way he batted, but he did. At Edgbaston a week ago he attempted to move to three figures by whacking Paul Harris, the South African spinner, for six, and failed. Yesterday, when faced with the same challenge, he ducked out, preferring instead to take a single off Harris before walking across his stumps and nonchalantly whipping Makhaya Ntini through midwicket for four. What a fibbing little so-and-so he is.
Pietersen's wonderful display underlined his prowess as a batsman and allowed England to retain control of the fourth Test. Without his contribution, and that of Paul Collingwood, who struck a defiant 61, England would have run the risk of throwing away their advantage.
A highly entertaining, unbeaten 49 by Stephen Harmison ensured that this was not the case as England reached 316, a total that gave them a lead of 122. Harmison looked destined to reach a first Test half-century before James Anderson and Monty Panesar were dismissed in comical fashion.
Had the result of the series hung on such antics eyebrows would have been raised, but the sight of Panesar scampering to the crease, having been called for a quick single by Harmison, brought tears of laughter to the eyes of a delighted crowd. Their joy continued when Anderson trapped the South Africa captain, Graeme Smith, plumb in front with the fifth ball of the tourists' reply but it proved to be England's last success as South Africa reached 37 for 1 at the close.
Pietersen had the occasional stroke of good fortune while compiling his 14th Test hundred. On 52 Ntini failed to get to a top-edged hook at Morne Morkel, and on 61 the same fielder grassed a difficult diving catch running back at mid-on off the bowling of Andre Nel.
From this moment on there was a sense of destiny about Pietersen's innings, but these performances are not a fluke. Every batsman is vulnerable to a good ball at the start of an innings, but once Pietersen gets in when he has a point to prove there appears very little the fielding side can do about it. Displays like this make you wonder why he ever fails, so dominant is he at the crease.
On 95 and when facing Harris, Pietersen chose not to go for glory, instead waiting for a leg-stump half-volley from Ntini, which he effortlessly clipped to the boundary. Pietersen celebrated in a controlled manner, savouring his moment of personal glory. Then, without adding to his score and with point proven, he wafted loosely at a wide ball from Ntini, guiding a catch to Jacques Kallis at slip.
Pietersen would have been hoping to spend an hour or so with his feet up before being called into action, but the dismissal of Ian Bell meant he had to answer the call of his adopted country after the fourth ball of the day. Ntini's most potent days as a fast bowler are behind him but the 31-year-old is still capable of producing the occasional fright, and he did so in the England dressing room when Bell edged a tentative push to Smith fielding at first slip.
A capacity crowd greeted Pietersen's walk to the crease with warm applause and he looked slightly nervous to begin with. The 28-year-old is always fidgety at the start of an innings but his actions seemed even more pronounced. He played and missed at the first ball he faced, but it did not take long for his instincts to take control. His run came via a nudge to fine leg but in Ntini's next over the batsman's instinct took over and the bowler was struck twice through the leg side for four.
Then, as if to prove to everyone that he was not going to change the way he batted, Pietersen shimmied down the pitch to Nel only to push the ball back to the bowler. Nel, hothead that he is, picked the ball up and threw it at the stumps.
By this time Alastair Cook, contentedly playing a supporting role at the other end, had all but been forgotten. The obdurate opener had added just 18 runs to his overnight score in 18 overs. But Cook's vigil ended when he uncharacteristically edged a wild cut at a wide ball from Ntini through to the wicketkeeper. The dismissal placed England, on 111 for 3, in a delicate position. The decision to play five bowlers had been rewarded on the opening day but there was now a chance of the hosts being bowled out for fewer than their opponents. And the probability of this would have increased significantly had a Neil McKenzie throw hit the stumps with Collingwood, searching for a first run, well out of his crease.
Pietersen and Collingwood counter-attacked with great effect at Edgbaston in the third Test and they did so again here. If anything Collingwood was the more aggressive of the two, hitting Kallis over and through the leg side on several occasions. The pair added 108 vital runs before Pietersen left to a standing ovation.
Andrew Flintoff drove loosely at Kallis and was caught behind, and Tim Ambrose quickly followed, edging an away-swinger from the same bowler to first slip. Collingwood passed 50 for the 17th time in Test cricket before chipping a catch back to Kallis and when Stuart Broad edged Ntini to third slip England appeared set for only a small first-innings lead.
The wicket took Ntini past Dennis Lillee – with 355 victims – and into 15th place in the all-time list. In a series largely dominated by bowlers, remarkably it provided a bowler with the first five-wicket haul. Harmison's pyrotechnics somewhat spoilt Ntini's figures but passing Lillee, possibly the greatest of all time, is a milestone every paceman would love to achieve.
Shot of the day
*Jacques Kallis' accurate away swing bowling has caused Kevin Pietersen problems, but he was unable to control the England captain yesterday. A Pietersen hundred contains many memorable shots, but an on-drive down the ground off Kallis showed his prowess.
Ball of the day
*The last thing a batsman needs early in his innings when he is playing for his Test career is a perfectly pitched away-swinger. Yet that is just what Jacques Kallis delivered to Tim Ambrose, who could do no more than edge a straightforward catch to Graeme Smith at first slip.
*When Kevin Pietersen's leg-side flick beat the despairing dive of midwicket the England captain knew he had reached his hundred. He leapt into the air before taking off his helmet to offer a wry smile. He then stretched out his arms and lapped up the applause.
*Today: It will be a cloudy and windy day with rain forecast for the afternoon. Max temp 19C.
Tomorrow: Cloudy but less chance of showers. May even be the odd ray of sunshine to brighten The Oval. Max temp 21C.
South Africa won toss
South Africa – First Innings 194
England – First Innings
A N Cook c Boucher b Ntini......... 39
158 min, 102 balls, 5 fours
I R Bell c Smith b Ntini......... 24
61 min, 41 balls, 3 fours, 1 five
*K P Pietersen c Kallis b Ntini......... 100
206 min, 137 balls, 15 fours
P D Collingwood c and b Kallis......... 61
178 min, 124 balls, 10 fours
A Flintoff c Boucher b Kallis......... 9
15 min, 13 balls, 1 six
+T R Ambrose c Smith b Kallis......... 4
14 min, 11 balls
S C J Broad c McKenzie b Ntini......... 1
46 min, 36 balls
S J Harmison not out......... 49
83 min, 59 balls, 8 fours
J M Anderson lbw b Harris......... 13
54 min, 34 balls, 1 four
M S Panesar run out (Harris)......... 0
2 min, 0 balls
Extras (b 0, lb 4, w 1, nb 5, pens 0)......... 10
Total (421 mins, 95.2 overs)......... 316
Fall: 1-7 (Strauss), 2-51 (Bell), 3-111 (Cook), 4-219 (Pietersen), 5-233 (Flintoff), 6-241 (Ambrose), 7-248 (Collingwood), 8-263 (Broad), 9-316 (Anderson), 10-316 (Panesar).
Bowling: Morkel 22-3-78-0, Ntini 24-3-94-5, Nel 19.2-5-56-0, Kallis 15-2-51-3, Harris 15-4-33-1.
South Africa – Second Innings
*G C Smith lbw b Anderson......... 0
2 min, 5 balls
N D McKenzie not out......... 9
38 min, 19 balls, 1 four
H M Amla not out.....................26
35 min, 30 balls, 5 fours
Extras (b 2, lb 0, w 0, nb 0, pens 0)......... 2
Total (1 wkt, 38 mins, 9 overs)......... 37
Fall: 1-0 (Smith).
To bat: J H Kallis, A G Prince, A B de Villiers, +M V Boucher, M Morkel, P L Harris, A Nel, M Ntini.
Bowling: Anderson 3-1-11-1, Harmison 3-0-13-0, Flintoff 2-0-11-0, Panesar 1-1-0-0.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak)and S J Davis (Aus).
TV replay umpire: P J Hartley.
Match referee: R S Madugalle.