Collingwood’s century keeps England hopes high

This match has produced spells of Test cricket at its very best and now there’s a back-from-the-brink story to add to the chronicles. Paul Collingwood was playing for his future, and England’s series hopes hung by a thread, but he responded with one of the gutsiest hundreds you’ll see. Following a rousing 94 from Kevin Pietersen the lead is 214 and another Edgbaston classic is on the offing.

The momentum changed more than once, but England began to believe again when Pietersen and Collingwood added 115 in a thrilling 23-over stand. However, when the unlikely figure of Paul Harris removed Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff in the space of five balls South Africa were sensing the series. Yet Collingwood defied them with his sixth Test century, and to cap it all he reached it with a thumping six over long on. Once again this was sporting drama of the highest order.

Three figures came off 133 balls and, although there must have been so many pent up emotions, he restrained himself to a calm salute to all corners of the ground, but especially the dressing room. Tim Ambrose needs a mention, too, because when he came in the lead was a precarious 138, but a stand of 76 with Collingwood means England can still set over 250. No team has chased more than 208 at Edgbaston.

The energy and passion of yesterday’s final session, when Flintoff’s fire-and-brimstone performance rattled South Africa, left Edgbaston wanting more. For two sessions it didn’t quite live up to those heights as England’s limp top-order gifted South Africa the advantage with another poor display. They’d done well to restrict the lead to 83, but in the context of this ground that was still substantial.

England couldn’t really afford more than a single loss while knocking off those runs. Two would have been manageable; three meant they were once again chasing the game. Alastair Cook’s pull was defeated by Makhaya Ntini’s angle and Michael Vaughan tried to hit his way out of form before finding mid-off. When Ian Bell lobbed a lame pull to Mark Boucher the decline appeared terminal at 104 for 4.

Pietersen, though, stood tall but needed support. He found it in Collingwood, who emerged from the most debilitating slump of his career. It’s not over-stating the situation to say Collingwood’s Test career hinged on this innings. He has bought himself a lifeline. The early stages of his innings were grafted purely from memory, but the wonder that is confidence began to return with consecutive cuts off Morne Morkel – a Collingwood trademark. This was his first century in any form of cricket since the 128 he made against West Indies, at Chester-le-Street, and more runs than he’d managed in first-class cricket this season.

It helped, no end, to have a domineering Pietersen at the other end, but his innings had begun in restrained fashion, aware that the series probably rested on his shoulders. He refused to chase Jacques Kallis’ wide outswingers although his first boundary was a full-stretch cover drive off Andre Nel. After tea he changed gears and a passage of cricket to match the Flintoff-fuelled drama followed.

Morkel charged in, testing out the middle of the pitch, but without the experience or control of Flintoff. Pietersen repeatedly put him away through the leg side and his eight-over spell cost 55. Nel put everything into his burst, but became over-excited and gave Pietersen a series of half volleys. Almost before Graeme Smith knew it, the lead was past three figures as runs came at six-an-over.

Pietersen was bristling – albeit with a dose of fortune as two inside-edges took him to fifty – and wasn’t going to be contained by Harris. Twice he brought out the switch-hit to balls outside his leg stump, swinging them through huge space on the off side. This is the ground where he first brought out the shot – against Muttiah Muralitharan in 2006 – but Harris, with all due respect, is no Murali. That, though, may just have brought Pietersen’s downfall. He felt he could do as he pleased, and sensing a century, tried to launch Harris over mid-on without getting a proper connection. AB de Villiers took a good catch and the game changed again. Pietersen knew it. Flintoff had lifted England to a match-winning lead here in 2005, but this time lasted just four balls before getting a thin inside edge to short leg. Harris, out of nowhere, was turning the match around.

South Africa, though, were not at their best in the field and the lack of Dale Steyn’s pitch-up variety was telling for the first time in the match. Towards the end of the day the spark had gone and Smith was starting to sweat. The pitch has held together well and their batting line-up is in-form, but the pressure will be on with a series at stake. And, without mentioning the ‘c’ word, pressure can do funny things to South Africa.

– About Cricket –

Sandesh Kumar Jaggi

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