South Africa 270 for 8 (Kallis 63, Gibbs 78) tied with England 270 for 5 (Pietersen 108*, Vaughan 42, Collingwood 40)
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Kevin Pietersen jumps for joy as he completes his maiden international century © Getty Images

"He's bowled like a camel and fielded like a drain," snorted Bob Willis, as Kabir Ali was called into the attack to bowl the crucial final over of an extraordinary tussle at Bloemfontein. South Africa needed eight runs for victory with five wickets in hand, and with Michael Vaughan off the field with a stomach bug, Marcus Trescothick called a meeting of minds. The upshot was that Ali was handed the responsibility of securing a result for England, possibly on the assumption that his day could hardly get any worse.

Ali's most recent over had been carted for 13, including a vast straight six from Justin Kemp that had reignited South Africa's run-chase, and he immediately lived down to his billing. His first delivery was a waist-high no-ball that Mark Boucher swatted for four through square leg, and the game seemed to be well and truly in the bag.

Three to win from six balls, then, and Ali's confidence had been shot to bits. His next delivery was another full-toss. This time, however, Boucher clubbed the freebie straight to Ashley Giles at deep midwicket, and suddenly the game was back in the balance. Suitably lifted, Ali conceded just a scampered single from his next two balls, and came up with a perfect length delivery for the new batsman, Ashwell Prince, that he could only squeeze towards midwicket. Hesitation ensued, the ball was lobbed back to the bowler, and Prince's run-out left South Africa needing two from two balls.

They couldn't manage it. Shaun Pollock grabbed the vital single to level the scores, but Ali's final act of the match was a perfect full-length delivery that Andrew Hall lost sight of as he chopped down late, and Geraint Jones, who was standing up to prevent a scampered bye, pulled off a smart stumping just to put a seal on the match. It was the fifth tie involving South Africa in one-day cricket, and though it was not quite as traumatic as the matches in 1999 and 2003 that put them out of the World Cup, it was significant nonetheless. South Africa have now failed to beat any team but Bangladesh in their last 14 matches - and this one should really have stopped the rot.

The identity of the Man of the Match will merely add insult to South African injury. At the midway point of the match, the crowd turned its back on Kevin Pietersen as he walked off the pitch, just as he had turned his back on them at the start of the decade, by leaving the country to begin his qualification for England. Pietersen is too thick-skinned to let the reaction bother him, but one hopes that the crowd didn't look away too soon, for his unbeaten 108 from 96 balls was a true gem of an innings, and if the early promise is to be believed, it should be the first of many international hundreds.

Say what you like about the man - and the crowds have done so, at length. But there is no doubt whatsoever that he can bat. On a slow and low Bloemfontein pitch, Pietersen produced an innings of great patience and even more impressive acceleration - and in the process lifted his career average to a none-too-shabby 234 - as England emerged from a sticky start to post an imposing 270 for 5.

Kabir Ali celebrates after the vital final ball © Getty Images

He has already got a reputation as a fierce striker of a cricket ball, but this situation called for a different type of innings. When he came to the crease in the 17th over, England had stumbled to 67 for 3, and with Graeme Smith chopping and changing his bowlers - mixing a burst of pace here with a hint of spin there - rhythm was hard to come by for all the batsmen. But slowly and deliberately, Pietersen rebuilt the innings, first in partnership with Michael Vaughan, who made 42 before he was run out, and then, with more urgency, with Paul Collingwood, whose 40 came from 41 balls, and proved to be the perfect foil.

Pietersen didn't score his first boundary until his 31st delivery, but once the shackles had been broken there was no stopping him. His last 58 runs came from 41 balls, as England added 77 in the final 10 overs, including 14 off an unusually loose over from the metronomic Pollock. When he finally cracked along to his century from 91 balls, he capped his performance with a double-fisted salute and an ostentatious kiss of the badge on his helmet. This was a performance to make England proud, and he was keen to demonstrate it to all and sundry.

If England owed their promising total to their new boy, then South Africa were indebted to the old firm of Jacques Kallis and Herschelle Gibbs for keeping them in the hunt, after the early wickets of Graeme Smith, who fell victim to Matthew Hoggard for the fifth time this winter, and AB de Villiers, whose belated debut ended tamely as he pulled an Ali long-hop to square leg. Gibbs and Kallis added 134 for the third wicket in a partnership of gentle accumulation, as they milked the medium-pacers and set South Africa up for the big final push.

Kallis eventually fell for 63, caught sweeping to short fine leg, but Justin Kemp clobbered two vast sixes to turn the momentum of the game firmly in South Africa's favour. But England had an ace up their sleeve, and in his second irrepressible performance of the series, Darren Gough set about imposing his will on the game. He plucked a superb catch at short fine leg to remove Gibbs for 78 - shortly after he had brought up his 5000th run in one-day cricket - and then in the very next over, he ended Kemp's fireworks with a trademark Yorkshire yorker.

Fast and full - it was the mantra that Ali temporarily forgot as he was brought into the attack. But he remembered just in time, to snatch the match back out of the fire, just when all of Bloemfontein thought the series had been levelled.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo.