The relative values to the team cause of character and class were graphically illustrated by Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen at Edgbaston as England, 214 runs ahead with two days to play, fought to stay in the series.
It is a handy position following the situations England have found themselves in for much of this match. But fired by Andrew Fintoff’s bowling on Thursday and then by Collingwood and Pietersen, they have a real chance, especially if they can extend their lead to above 280, the minimum needed unless the clouds roll in or the pitch starts turning.
Hopelessly out of form for much of the season, Collingwood had to summon the last dregs of his character to make his highest score for 25 Test innings. Scrapping like an alley cat, and with his bottom hand dominant, he somehow turned base metal into gold. Pietersen did the opposite – his classy knock was cut short at a critical juncture when he foolishly allowed risk to overcome reward in the pursuit of his 14th Test hundred.
Collingwood has experienced the extremes of sporting life in this Test. Unfairly booed by the crowd when he bowled on Thursday (it was not his fault the selectors kept faith with him after just 43 runs in six Test innings), he won the biggest cheer of the day when he brought his hundred up with a clean-as-you-like six over long-on off left-arm spinner Paul Harris.
In terms of resurrections, Collingwood’s is as dramatic as that of the phantom canoeist John Darwin. It certainly did not look likely after his hapless gropes of the first innings, but sometimes all it takes is one shot for the feel-good chemicals to stir in the brain.
Although he got off the mark with a pull for four off Makhaya Ntini, the shot that saw his bearing rise like baking bread was a square cut off Jacques Kallis that took him from 16 to 20. It was a proper shot and while South Africa were often culpable in bowling to his strengths, which are the cut, pull, and shovel to leg, this one was not a bad ball.
His rehabilitation was helped by Pietersen scoring freely and by a pitch whose sting had been drawn by the sun. Not that his contribution to their 115-run partnership was subsidised by Pietersen, whose shots included three of his now famous switch hits, two of which went for four.
South Africa have been calling Pietersen "Ego" and the monicker proved telling. Trying to reach what could have been a series-turning hundred with a six off Harris, he got too close to the ball and holed out for 94.
There was some contrition, as he walked off swishing his bat, but his grandstanding handed South Africa their best chance of winning a series in England since 1965.They would be a lot closer, though, had their bowlers been able to show the same discipline as their batsmen.
Were England’s selectors made of sterner stuff, they would drop Pietersen for the next Test – or make him captain – to distract him from worshipping at the temple of one. Those royally entertained by his sublime shots will find the suggestion harsh, especially as England had nobody else but he and Collingwood to make the running yesterday. But throwing your wicket away when you have the opposition on toast and are one down in the series is one of the great crimes in cricket and should not go unpunished should England lose this Test.
There was collateral damage from it, too, with Andrew Flintoff falling to Harris four balls later. Flintoff is a timid starter against spin and his tame prod saw him caught by Hashim Amla at short leg. With time no issue, Tim Ambrose saw the value of partnerships and kept Collingwood company until the close.
Conceding an 83-run deficit on first innings, England lost quick wickets, with Alastair Cook top-edging a pull off Ntini. It brought a fine running catch from mark Boucher but Cook should have been out lbw to the first ball he faced. The bowler, Andre Nel, may be held in contempt for his reaction to Aleem Dar’s decision, but if there ever a decision deserved contempt it was this one.
Vaughan followed after a frenetic 17 off 18 balls. With his sap up, England’s skipper tried to drive Nel on the rise. It was a risky shot and it found Amla, who took a fine catch at extra cover. With neither Andrew Strauss nor Ian Bell able to get beyond the twenties, the pressure was on Pietersen and Collingwood to deliver.
In their different ways they did but England’s position could have been so much more dominant had one of them not allowed both his ego and his wicket to be captured by the South Africans.
England 1st Innings all out 231
South Africa 1st Innings 314
England 2nd Innings
Strauss c Kallis b M Morkel 25
Cook c Boucher b Ntini 9
Vaughan c Amla b Nel 17
Pietersen c de Villiers b Harris 94
Bell c Boucher b Ntini 20
Collingwood not out 126
Flintoff c Amla b Harris 2
Ambrose b M Morkel 19
Sidebottom not out 1
Extras (3nb, 6w, 4b, 2lb) 15
Total (for 7 wkts) 328
Fall of wicket: 1- 15, 2-39, 3-70, 4-104, 5-219, 6-221, 7-297
Bowling: Morkel 18-1-87-2, Nel 18-3-69-1, Ntini 18-4-58-2, Kallis 16.3-4-48-0, Harris 21-3-60-2