A superb, even 100 from Kevin Pietersen, his first century as England captain, provided the mainstay of England’s 316 on the second day against South Africa at The Oval. Yet with England’s brittle middle-order again struggling – Makhaya Ntini took five wickets for the first time in 17 Tests – it was left to none other than Steve Harmison and the tail to extend their lead from a thrifty fifty to a challenging 122. James Anderson then capped a solid day for England by removing Graeme Smith for a duck to put the hosts firmly on top.
In helpful bowling conditions, the momentum swung wildly throughout the day. After Pietersen fell for his hundred, soon followed by Tim Ambrose and Andrew Flintoff, the onus fell on Paul Collingwood to chivvy the tailenders. But he too fell to Jacques Kallis, who bowled a nagging line all day, as England slipped to a precarious 248 for 7. A collapse was on the cards, but Harmison – clearly relishing his return – cracked his highest first-class score, falling one short of a maiden fifty, to lift England’s lead and alter the whole feeling of the day.
An enigma with the ball during his career, Harmison is pleasingly uncomplicated with the bat. He stood tall to Ntini, punching him elegantly off the back foot before smudging another four over midwicket. A couple of fortunate swipes off the struggling Morne Morkel further deflated South Africa before he unleashed an exquisite cut to beat his previous best of 42. At the other end, Anderson was his muted partner but blocked and nurdled his way to a 34-ball 13 in the pair’s crowd-lifting ninth-wicket stand of 53. A fifty for Harmison on his comeback to the England side, perhaps? Sadly not, as Monty Panesar was ball-watching for what was a tight single, but Harmison had already done the damage.
And Anderson made good England’s tail-wagging with a brilliant set-up to dismiss Smith. Much as he did to Kallis in the first innings, two outswingers gave the batsman a sighter before he bent back a killer inswinger, trapping Smith bang in front. Anderson and Harmison couldn’t break Hashim Amla, however, who looked in fine touch with five crisp late-evening fours.
If it was a day for the bowlers, then more power to Pietersen’s elbow for his hundred. Ian Bell, promoted to the No.3 position which he yearns to cement, fell to the fourth ball of the day, and although Alastair Cook hung around for 102 balls, his 39 lacked fluency and confidence. Rather inevitably, he fell to a loose slap outside off. Yet the predicament England found themselves in didn’t affect Pietersen. Rather, it – and the added responsibility of the captaincy – seemed to spur him on. There was no discernible difference in his extravagant method at the crease, picking Ntini over midwicket with one-legged flair of Desmond Haynes and taking advantage of Smith’s heavy off-side field – an odd oversight to a player so strong on the leg-side, from a captain usually so aware of players strengths. Pietersen’s driving off Kallis – indeed all the seamers – down the ground was at its imperious best.
Nevertheless, he wasn’t faultless and offered a chance on 52 when he top-edged Morkel into the deep, where Paul Harris was dozing. Ntini made a good effort to snaffle it, as he did again when Pietersen mis-hooked Andre Nel from around the wicket, but all the luck was falling England’s way. Collingwood, meanwhile, was fed with leg-side gifts aplenty, working and nudging through midwicket with ease, but he was no less strong through the covers when given the chance. A fierce cut scorched through extra cover as England took the lead and South Africa struggled to maintain the run-rate.
Pietersen’s 15th four was flicked from outside the off stump through midwicket to bring up his hundred – a trademark stroke from a man writing his own script – as the crowd honoured him with a long standing ovation. But two balls later, he nudged a wide teaser from Ntini straight to Kallis at third slip; captain or not, it seems unlikely he will ever change his batting style. Nor should he.
Collingwood forced his way to another fifty, on the back of his magnificent hundred at Edgbaston, and though England suffered a middle-order collapse of 5 for 44, South Africa’s slight complacency allowed Harmison off the hook during his trailblazing hour of fun. The momentum slipped away from South Africa with each four, and though Amla played with pleasing freedom in an extended final session, England remained in control in Pietersen’s first Test of his tenure.
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Sandesh Kumar Jaggi