England v SA, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 3rd day August 4, 2012

Thrilling Pietersen ton ignites Test

England 351 for 5 (Pietersen 149*, Prior 20*) trail South Africa 419 by 68 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

It was brash, it was brilliant and it came almost out of the blue. Even by his own extreme standards, Kevin Pietersen's 21st Test century was one of his most remarkable. It took a Test series that had been characterised throughout by South African discipline and English subjugation and it turned it thoroughly, thrillingly, on its head.

As ever with Pietersen's greatest innings, it grew not just from innate talent but a colossal belief in his own ability. Shortly after tea, he became the fastest batsman, in terms of time, to 7000 Test runs - beating South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, his compatriot and not exactly his biggest fan, by almost a year. He gazed upon his statistic, adorned with his own image, on the big screen as if drawing new energy, new belief, from the magnitude of his achievement.

One point that has not been stressed enough about Pietersen's retirement from England's one-day side after a stand-off with England's management is that feelgood is not just beneficial to him, but essential to all he achieves. When the ego is not fed, the magic departs.

He was comparatively restrained up to tea, making 43 from 83 balls, but in a prolonged final session of 3 hours 10 minutes something clicked. He destroyed the finest attack in Test cricket, surfing on a wave of self-belief. There was still something in the pitch but it became an irrelevance. In that final session, England made 168 runs in 42 overs and Pietersen got 106 of them. Nobody can suggest this Test is not alive after that. South Africa suffered a further blow shortly before the close when captain Graeme Smith had to be helped from the field after injuring his left knee in chasing a ball to the boundary.

Perhaps South Africa should not have tried to bounce Pietersen out immediately after tea. It was a legitimate tactic and, if Hashim Amla had held on at short leg when Pietersen was 52, a push off his hip against Morne Morkel, Smith's gambit would have succeeded. It fell to earth.

Pietersen then imagined himself invincible. It must be the sort of feeling most of us only ever recognise after about three drinks when the music is playing, except in Pietersen's case, the more he sups the better it gets. He flung his front leg to the leg side, to haul a succession of short balls from Morkel riskily above and beyond three boundary catchers, causing South Africa to abandon the ploy prematurely; he stood tall to drill Dale Steyn through point; and he met Jacques Kallis with the whippiest of straight drives.

As the Test series was transformed, he lacerated Vernon Philander through the offside to reach 99 and then, next ball, stole a single to midwicket for his 100, leaving him level with his captain, Andrew Strauss and one behind those at the top of the pile: Colin Cowdrey, Geoff Boycott and Wally Hammond. His high-hurdle celebration was regarded by some South Africans as rather tasteless, and after he had raised his bat to his wife in the crowd, his hug of celebration with the diminutive James Taylor, on debut, was amusingly chaste. How do you hug a man on public view who you barely know and who is more than a foot shorter than you are? Carefully, according to Pietersen.

Taylor played dutifully on his Test debut, a predominantly back-foot player, like most small batsmen, who fell half-an-hour before the close when he chopped on against Morkel for a considered 34, in a stand of 147, that provided a careful counterpoint to the mayhem around him. He must have observed Pietersen, 22 yards away, and imagined a different world.

On 110, Pietersen lashed Steyn so fiercely back towards him that it was a relief the bowler was not struck. Every onlooker, English or South African alike, would have had their most memorable moment. This might be a bit left field: on 143, he failed to spot a googly from Imran Tahir. No matter, he concluded, I will switch hit the next one. He missed it. He probably never read it. He probably did not even try to. But it spoke volumes about how he believes that attitude can conquer all.

Until Pietersen deemed what had passed before immaterial, the suspicion was growing that South Africa's accession to the No 1 Test ranking by winning this three-Test series was only a matter of time. South Africa looked purposeful; England slightly listless. It was the draining feeling when a side suspected that in the home conditions where it had normally been so dominant, it had finally met its match.

Pietersen's conviction contrasted vividly with the dismissals of Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell as England struggled to break the shackles. Smith's catch at first slip, as Steyn dismissed Trott for 35, came from a cross-batted carve at a length ball and worse was to when Bell, who had announced himself by lofting the legspinner Tahir imperiously for a straight six, chased a curly outswinger from Kallis that swung wide and early.

It was an abysmal shot by Bell, one of the weakest of his 79-Test career, especially considering that his dismissal brought in Taylor, on debut, only five minutes before tea. It did at least allow Taylor to make his first Test runs by the interval, an off drive against a long half-volley from Tahir that would have settled his nerves.

Strauss was the first wicket to fall after lunch, a laborious innings coming to grief when Steyn, who had bowled too wide at him, finally found a tight enough line to force a catch at the wicket. Alastair Cook fell in a rain-affected morning, the sort of Headingley morning when the fancy dressers would have been better coming as frogmen than paying homage, as many did, to the Leeds DJ, TV personality and eccentric, Sir Jimmy Savile, who died last year.

Cook was lbw pushing forward to Philander, the sort of low-trajectory bowler with an ability to swing the ball at a good length who often succeeds at Headingley. He stayed around for an umpiring review, however, which predictably was entirely wasted when the ball was shown to be hitting middle, two thirds of the way up. There might have been a glimmer of hope that the ball was pitching outside leg but it was a wasted review.

Batting relationships, as well as the status of players within a side, can often be revealed by attitudes to reviewing decisions that even in real time seem to have a high probability of being out. Cook is not only one of the most valued wickets in the England side, which gives him a slightly greater claim to a review, he is also Strauss' heir apparent and the relationship between the two men is strong. It all tipped England into a review that Strauss must have agreed to against his better instincts.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo