England v West Indies, 1st Test, Lord's, 4th day May 20, 2007

England look to the odd couple for victory

Kevin Pietersen and Chris Gayle were at it hammer-and-tongs all day. And Pietersen was indisputably the winner of the argument © Getty Images
In any ordinary circumstances, you'd expect a side to canter to victory in a match where half the team registers either a hundred or a five-wicket haul. But in the absence of the injured Matthew Hoggard, and with Steve Harmison's radar still alarmingly awry in his solitary over before the close, England's hopes of forcing their first victory at Lord's in four visits are not as clear-cut as their overnight position would suggest.

"If I was in the West Indies camp right now, I'd be a bit nervous," said the sixth of England's honour-board entrants, Kevin Pietersen, but his swashbuckling century was an innings of such sublime certainty that he couldn't help but admit to a very significant truth about the pitch. "It is so flat," he said. His 109 from 138 balls was England's fifth of the match and 28th at Lord's since the start of the 2000s. West Indies haven't yet registered their first of this game, but one big innings tomorrow - on a day that is expected to be interrupted by rain - could yet be sufficient to steer them to a hugely morale-boosting draw.

"In Test cricket, hundreds count," said David Moore, West Indies' coach. "We don't deal in niceties, we deal in realities and the reality is we were 116 short on first innings. The key is not getting too far ahead of ourselves. We're in there fighting and the key for us was to be alive on the fourth day and going really hard."

Rain permitting, there will be two key players for England tomorrow, and they could hardly be more contrasting characters. Harmison and Monty Panesar have combined exquisitely in the past - at Old Trafford against Pakistan last summer they took 19 of the 20 wickets between them. But the differences between the two have been magnified and polarised in the intervening months. One loves his work more than life itself; the other hates all the baggage that comes with being an international cricketer. One has a smooth grooved action that repeats itself effortlessly; the other has a wrist position so wonky that every slo-mo camera in the game is trained above his head.

We know he's going to click. The sky's the limit for that bloke, he should be the best bowler in the world

Kevin Pietersen on Steve Harmison

"We know he's going to click," said Pietersen of the tormented Harmison. "The sky's the limit for that bloke, he should be the best bowler in the world." But at present he's not even close to being the best bowler in his team - that accolade currently belongs to a man about whom Pietersen - like so many other observers - appears ever so gently amused. "Monty's brilliant," he said. "He comes in, does his job and gets everybody excited. He's just a good bloke to watch and play around, because he's so jovial."

Pietersen's love of the game is much harder to read. The celebrations for his seventh Test century were the most muted of his career - a casual wander to the non-striker's end, a slow, deliberate moment of contemplation, and a belated raise of the bat - as if he was suggesting it was all too easy. After the twin crescendoes of the Ashes and the World Cup, it was almost as if he needed an artificial impetus to maintain his interest in the contest, as he embarked on an innings-long banter-war with his friend Chris Gayle, a man whose day ended painfully with a blow in the nether-regions from one of Harmison's better-targetted deliveries.

"It was particularly pleasing to see him get one this evening," Pietersen joked. "Chris and I talk to each other every week, so there was a lot of friendly banter out there. It might look silly on occasions but it gets me going, keeps me tuned in, and it's a way of relaxing me too, because I'm no Einstein - no-one can concentrate all the time. It gives me two or three seconds to relax as the bowler walks back to his mark."

It was a relaxed batting performance all the way through from England, a stark contrast to the haunted, pessimistic performances they put in throughout the Caribbean. "I was in one-day mode in the first innings," admitted Pietersen, which wasn't intended as a codeword for failure, but that's how it came across nonetheless after his slogged 26 had ended with a loose drive to cover. "I worked hard with Peter Moores in the nets and tried to get as much patience back in my game as I possibly could. We tried to score as quick as we can, but without anything stupid - if we'd lost me, then we could have been in a difficult position."

As it is, England's difficulty lies with the players who have not put their names up on the honours board for this Test. Owais Shah failed again and seems set to make way for Michael Vaughan at Headingley, who also seems set to take over from the current captain, Andrew Strauss - who must surely be wishing to take off his water wings and lead this side in his own right sometime soon; Matthew Hoggard wasn't seen at all and won't feature on the final day, while Liam Plunkett is the missing link between Harmison and Panesar - the curate's egg performer who at times in the first innings was as wayward as his Durham team-mate, and yet still managed to bowl Chris Gayle with a yorker as devastating as that first-ball he inflicted on Adam Gilchrist in the CB Series victory.

West Indies have a maximum of 98 overs in which to make their remaining 394 runs - an outlandish proposition but one that Moore was duty-bound to talk up, for the alternative would be to fixtate on the draw and fail through a lack of ambition. "I think it's very evenly poised at the moment," he insisted. "We fought very hard to get to where we are, and if there's an opportunity for a win, we'll certainly be pushing for one.

"We scored 363 yesterday," he added, a fact that had doubtless been in England's thoughts as they sized up the timing of their late-evening declaration. "I know we're talking about a fifth-day wicket, so I'm not trying to delude myself. But we did that without putting the pedal to the metal and without Gayle scoring lots of runs." Both, clearly, will be required to pull off an outrageous result. But a threadbare attack cannot afford for another anodyne performance from Harmison, the man who made his name in his terrorising of these very same opponents.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo