Swann soars above wrung-out Bell

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In Graeme Swann England at last found someone to dispute seriously the message that kept being flashed up on the big electronic scoreboard.

Written in the Xhosa language, it accompanied a picture of the great fast bowler Makhaya Ntini and was capable of several shades of meaning. Inqaba Makhaya, it declared – hero, legend, warrior, champion, take your pick and while you're doing it enjoy the free drink promised by the series sponsors when Ntini took his first wicket in his 100th Test match.

That the victim was England captain Andrew Strauss only heightened the celebrations – and the sense South Africa were about to exploit massively Strauss's surprising decision to field when he won the toss.

However, after England's front-line batsmen crumbled one after the other Swann, not for the first time, showed that he is a man who can come alive when the pressure is turned up to pretty much its limits.

England were facing humiliation when Swann came in with seven wickets down and South Africa still leading by 197 runs. His response was nothing short of majestic as he briskly set about becoming England's top scorer and hitting his highest batting mark in 13 Tests. Talk about the gesture politics of sport. One of Swann's first acts was to hook Inqaba Makhaya for six, not any old six but one that was quite beautifully shaped.

The rest was according to a formula Swann has established as a winning brand in the surge of personal success which has so comprehensively submerged the nation's former household favourite spinner Monty Panesar. Swann inserted himself into the heart of the Ashes triumph last summer and here yesterday he surely created new waves of mystique. The trick, it appears, is to produce the jauntiest of styles, all the better to conceal behind it the most ferocious ambition.

If Ntini is the warrior and the legend, Swann is the peculiarly English hero, nonchalant in all but the vital execution of his assignment.

Here it was to restore England's position at least to some degree after the failure of much more celebrated team-mates. This he did after the likes of Strauss, Jonathan Trott, a century-maker in his first Test at the Oval climax of the Ashes series, Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen all failed to deliver the sustained batting momentum that might just have put England into a competitive position after South Africa had inched their way to a first-innings 418. Suddenly, though, a target which had seemed so unattainable when first Pietersen, then Collingwood were unable to build heavily on solid starts, began to melt away under the assault of Swann and his tail-end partner Jimmy Anderson.

Anderson, who played such a heroic role in the saving of the first Ashes Test in the company of that other spinner, Panesar, fell to a running catch after scoring 29 and his dismissal imperilled Swann's first century. However, there was little doubt that this was a Test match which would never recede too far in the memory of the Nottinghamshire player. His bowling had been both dogged and guileful and had been rewarded with five wickets. Now he was exploring new terrain as a batsman of some style and considerable nerve. In that latter category, he had certainly provoked a damaging comparison with Ian Bell, a man of wondrous gifts from time to time but perhaps not often enough when his country expects in the most demanding of circumstances.

Yesterday he committed the unpardonable crime of refraining to play a ball that collided with his middle and off stumps. It might have been a moment of collapse but for the resistance of Swann, whose thrillingly combative effort ended just 15 short of his first Test century.

Plainly, though, there will be other opportunities, something which cannot be said with such assurance about England's chief victim on a day which had threatened to go quite catastrophically wrong.

The recurring doubts over his ability to express himself fully at the highest level meant that Bell walked away from the wicket with much accumulated scepticism attached to his shoulders.

For Pietersen, there was another kind of concern, generated, you have to believe, from the mood of sober reflection he conveyed on his way to the pavilion, more from within than without.

All the way to this return to Test action after his limping retreat from the Ashes series the question had been asked with increasing force: had something gone from the competitive make-up of arguably the most talented batsman in all of cricket?

You wouldn't have thought so when he eased a six off the bowling of Paul Harris, the South African spinner who had been made to look like a combination of Shane Warne and Attila the Hun by the uncertainties of some of Pietersen's team-mates. It was the kind of shot that belongs only to the very gifted and the very self-confident.

The trouble is that the latter of those two qualities might just in Pietersen's cases be proving counter-productive. As he rebuilds his confidence after his first serious injury, he needs to tell himself not that he has sublime talent – everyone knows that – but some developing judgement.

With his score on 40, he was set to transform both himself and England. But instead he played one of his dreamiest shots against the highly committed but not exactly devastating Morne Morkel and paid with his off-stump.

That left the stage for Swann, the quirky usurper of the Inqaba Makhaya Show. He will take over many more before he is through, everyone can be sure of that. Not that they are likely to be allowed to forget.