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July 10, 2008
Kevin Pietersen has been remarkably quiet in the build-up to this series, but he didn't miss the opportunity to make the strongest of statements on the opening day at Lord's. In his first Test against the country of his birth he struck a faultless century to put England in command, adding an unbeaten 192 with Ian Bell for the fourth wicket, following an opening stand of 114 by Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss.
The early exchanges of this series had plenty to live up to after all the hype and there was more than enough to suggest that the contest can stand up to its billing. In between England's two century stands there were three wickets in 13 balls as South Africa enjoyed their one period of dominance. But Michael Vaughan said he saw a "glint" in Pietersen's eye in recent days and once he overcame a slightly shaky start he was in complete command.
Pietersen has always responded best to pressure situations and England's innings was at a tipping point when Pietersen and Bell joined forces, with eyes firmly fixed on both for different reasons. Pietersen had to keep his emotions in check, and a typically manic run to get off the mark showed the adrenalin was flowing. In the next over he was clanged on the head by Dale Steyn, but was down and up in one motion. His determination was clear from the outset and he played second fiddle to Bell until the tea interval.
His first fifty took 73 balls, but the next required just 51 more deliveries. This was his 13th Test hundred and fourth at Lord's, while he scored 91 between tea and the close. He took 10 off two balls from Paul Harris, twice coming down the pitch, but the clearest sign of his form was an effortless whip through midwicket off Jacques Kallis from outside off stump.
For Bell, the challenge was to show he could perform when it really mattered after a poor series against New Zealand. Andrew Flintoff is getting closer to a return and someone will have to make way. He came into this match off the back of a double century for Warwickshire, but this was an occasion where substance was more important than style.
In the end Bell managed to marry both in an authoritative innings. He was off to a flyer thanks to a series of half volleys from Steyn, then his innings went in the opposite direction to Pietersen. After 18 balls he had 30, but his fifty came off 89 deliveries. He concentrated hard to the close as the fourth-wicket stand became the highest partnership since Peter Moores became coach, surpassing Bell and Matt Prior's 190 against West Indies at Lord's last year.
Graeme Smith's day was a far cry from four years ago when South Africa skittled England for 173. His decision to bowl was swayed by the recent heavy rain, but the morning was bright. Lord's is one of those grounds where it's as important to look up at the toss as much as down.
This was the first time that Steyn and Morne Morkel had bowled at Lord's, plus rain hindered their preparation, and it showed as they struggled for rhythm. However, their post-lunch burst did hint at the potential on offer. Strauss was unlucky to be given out lbw to Morkel as replays showed the ball pitched outside leg, but it was the spark South Africa needed.
Smith immediately recalled Steyn and history repeated itself. On his Test debut in 2004 at Port Elizabeth, Steyn produced a magical ball to rip out Vaughan's off stump and found a near identical offering with his second delivery to the England captain. Morkel was extracting considerable lift out of a generally slow surface and claimed his second when Cook, after reaching fifty off 92 balls, got himself into a tangle. Trying to fend off a rising delivery, the ball took glove and shoulder of the bat, looping into the slips.
The knives were being sharpened over another England collapse and South Africa had the bit between their teeth. However, one man was on a personal mission and when he's in this mood Pietersen is irresistible. He may have been quiet before the series, but his actions have spoken louder than any words.
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