Cricket: England v South Africa

Performance of The Day: Kevin Pietersen

Pietersen destroyed the world's greatest bowler, Dale Steyn, in one of his greatest Test innings

Performance of The Day: Kevin Pietersen

Kevin Pietersen transformed the second Test with an innings of 149 not out that no other living mortal could have played.

The irony of a South African destroying the bowlers of his native land was not lost on the Proteas' fans in the crowd. They could be heard muttering about the absurdity of the quota systems that drove Pietersen to England.

And they would be right to think this was far from a quintessentially English innings. There is something in-your-face about Pietersen, which is a rare characteristic in an English cricketer. The last Englishman to bat like that was Sir Ian Botham, but even he never performed with quite the scintillating brilliance of Pietersen in this innings.

This was an unforgettable work of genius, arguably the greatest innings played by Pietersen since his epic confrontation in 2005 with Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, at The Oval. There have been other Pietersen specials, most recently his astonishing 151 in Colombo. But this takes top billing when one takes into account the quality of the attack he reduced to helplessness.

What is so thrilling is Pietersen’s capacity to raise his game against the very greatest bowlers. Warne, McGrath and Muralitharan have all been taken apart, even if all have had their moments against Pietersen.

This time it was Dale Steyn’s turn for a battering. The one indisputable all-time great fast bowler of the modern game was treated with arrogant disdain. His 72 balls to Pietersen cost 64 runs, including 13 fours and an astonishing, towering straight six that sailed into the stands at the Kirkstall Lane End. Against all other England batsmen Steyn took two wickets for 28 runs. But they were playing a different game.

The stunned expression on Steyn’s face spoke eloquently of his impotence as Pietersen made him look like a club bowler. One lofted straight drive was hit with such brutal force it nearly decapitated Steyn’s head. The bowler received a patronising pat on the back from Pietersen as the blood was returning to his face. 

Perhaps the most incredible shot of all off Steyn was a pull shot hit in such casual fashion that it was as though Pietersen were knocking up in the nets. He had as much time to play Steyn as another batsman would have against a medium-pacer. Such was his dominance of Steyn that ironic cheers greeted a forward defensive stroke.

Few cricketers in history create such an incredible sense of drama. One over against Morne Morkel had more incident than the whole of Alviro Petersen’s mammoth innings of 182 as Morkel went round the wicket and tried to bowl bodyline at Pietersen.

With his fearless attitude, Pietersen moved his left foot out of the way and attempted to pull everything fiercely into the legside. The trap almost worked when Pietersen guided a ball of his hips into the hands of Amla at short leg, but the chance was spilled with the batsman on 52. The next ball was pulled murderously to the fence.

If Steyn was treated like a medium-pace, then Kallis – who actually is a medium-pacer – was treated like a slow bowler. Pietersen moved out of his crease and drove him straight with a whippy bottom hand for four. Another breathtaking stroke involved Pietersen whipping the ball through mid-wicket with a real flourish.

The pleasure of watching Pietersen’s innings was enhanced by the contrast with the diminutive debutant James Taylor, who at 5 ft 4in, is a foot shorter than his partner. Pietersen scored 68 to Taylor’s 20 in their hundred stand, his pulsating ego and self-belief so different to the tentative strokes of a young man trying to find his feet in the side.

When he reached his hundred, Pietersen celebrated ecstatically. There has been talk of his estrangement from teammates since he opted out of ODIs, and of his obsession with money. But Pietersen knows that Twenty20 cricket may make him his fortune, but only in Test matches can he leave a legacy on the game.

Pietersen is much derided for his reckless batting, but his critics forget that his aggression makes such performances as this hundred possible. And his statistics are already remarkable: During this innings, his average rose above 50 again, he passed 7,000 runs quicker than any batsman in history and he drew level with Strauss on 21 hundreds, one behind Hammond, Boycott and Cowdrey.

But Pietersen’s cricket cannot be reduced to mere statistics. Anyone present at Leeds witnessed an innings to rival the most brilliant in Test history.