Cricket: Flintoff passes fitness test to ease the strain

England 303 & 195-8 dec Northerns/Gauteng 201 & 195

England win by 102 runs

ENGLAND COMPLETED their four-week preamble with a 102-run victory over Northerns/ Gauteng, the strongest of their opponents leading up to Thursday's first Test at the Wanderers. It was their second first-class victory of the tour, but if the margin suggests a team peaking at the right moment, there are still enough question marks to prevent their captain from getting a sound night's sleep.

Most worrying for Nasser Hussain, aside from his own sketchy form, must be England's propensity to collapse, as they did on Saturday. Cruising at 88 for no wicket, they suddenly found themselves at 130 for 7. Granted circumstances dictated that they needed to get on with it, but with a history of these things old weaknesses were revealed.

Alec Stewart, another failure with the bat, also remains a cause for concern. As one of several all-rounders, Stewart is under far less pressure than some and has at least until the third Test to keep his place. At present it is his lack of a gameplan for batting in the middle-order, rather than a lack of touch, that appears to be hindering his search for runs.

In the past England's problems tend to compound on tour, and news that a scan revealed a "hotspot" in Dean Headley's lower back, a discovery that means he will fly home immediately for 12 weeks rest, would normally have seen an outbreak of long faces. Fine timing then by Andy Flintoff who, as soon as the bad news had been made public, gave his own back a fitness test by returning an impressive 5 for 23 in the match.

Flintoff can bowl a heavy ball as Clive Eksteen, the home side's captain, will testify after being caught at gully from a bouncer that deflected off both glove and helmet. There was also subtlety, and after Steve Elworthy had hooked him for six he deceived the all-rounder with a slower ball that made its way into his enormous hands.

Although it is perhaps asking too much for Flintoff to get through 16 overs in a day, his availability to bowl after suffering a back strain earlier in the tour certainly frees up Hussain's options. He may even be tempted to include a frontline spinner for the Test, though Michael Vaughan, with 2 for 27, displayed spin and savvy with his part-time off- breaks.

It means also that the batting can be strengthened by adding Gavin Hamilton without over-exposing his bowling, which, although successful on two occasions yesterday, provided easy fodder for Neil McKenzie.

With Gauteng chasing 297, McKenzie showed just what a complete player he is until he was last man out for 87, playing over one of Darren Gough's inswinging yorkers.

Fortunately for England, only Daryll Cullinan came close to matching him and if England were a little jittery after the two had put on 61 for the third wicket, Cullinan's dismissal, cutting a decreasingly rusty Gough to Vaughan in the gully, precipitated a collapse - six wickets for 38 runs - that even England would have struggled to match.

Fourth day of four

Combined Northerns/Gauteng XI won toss

COMBINED NORTHERNS/GAUTENG XI - First Innings 201 (N D McKenzie 62).

ENGLAND 303 (M P Vaughan 85, M A Atherton 81; D J Terbrugge 4-67) and 136-7

ENGLAND - Second Innings

(Overnight 136-7)

C J Adams c Bacher b Eksteen 21

A J Tudor not out 19

A R Caddick not out 24

Extras (b8, lb3, nb6) 17

Total (for 8, 61 overs) 195

Fall: 1-88, 2-91, 3-93, 4-96, 5-97, 6-127, 7-130, 8-156.

Did Not Bat: D Gough.

Bowling: Elworthy 16-3-46-2; Smith 4-0-34-0; Eksteen 26-8-72-4; Terbrugge 4-1-15-0; Bacher 1-0-5-0; Masimula 10-5-12-2.

COMBINED NORTHERNS/GAUTENG XI

Second Innings

A M Bacher c Hussain b Vaughan 18

S V Koenig c Vaughan b Gough 6

N D McKenzie b Gough 87

D J Cullinan c Vaughan b Gough 32

M van Jaarsveld lbw b Caddick 5

N Pothas c Sub b Hamilton 3

S Elworthy c & b Flintoff 6

C E Eksteen c Vaughan b Flintoff 0

D J Terbrugge lbw b Hamilton 4

G J Smith b Vaughan 18

W B Masimula not out 2

Extras (lb10, w1, nb3) 14

Total (48.1 overs) 195

Fall: 1-9, 2-46, 3-107, 4-119, 5-125, 6-138, 7-138, 8-145, 9-193.

Bowling: Gough 13.1-1-69-3; Caddick 12-5-24-1; Tudor 2-0-13-0; Vaughan 8-1-27-2; Hamilton 8-1-35-2; Flintoff 5-2-17-2

Umpires: D L Orchard and W A Diedricks.

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