Absence of Flintoff may be blessing for England

Smith hints that loss of big personality may make it easier for Strauss to manage his squad
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South Africa lose a one-day series at home once in a blue moon. While it was being obscured yesterday, there was the undoubted sense that another example of the astronomical phenomenon was lurking behind the slate-grey skies.

Graeme Smith, the home side's captain, had an uncharacteristically woebegone air as he assessed their chances of levelling the one-day series against England at 2-2. He was pessimistic about the prospects of the game being played, rain having fallen here every day for the past week.

And if by some quirk of nature and the efficiency of super soppers, it should take place he was hardly assured about winning. It was as if he suspected, having won 14 straight limited-overs series since he took over as captain, that his time had come.

By contrast, Andrew Strauss, the captain of England, was positively bouncy in looking forward to today and the rest of the winter. Eeyore, it seemed, had been followed into the room by Tigger.

Smith was generous in his evaluation of Strauss's leadership. He has seen off two previous England captains during Test series – Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, both resigning while their teams were playing Smith's South Africa – but he will be hard-pushed to complete a hat-trick.

But Smith also hinted, as others have been prone to do in recent weeks, that Strauss and England might be doing better because of the absence of the man who was once their talisman, Andrew Flintoff. "He is the guy we expected him to be," Smith said of Strauss.

"He provides a base for England as a leader and a batter that is crucial. It's probably easier for him to manage a team without many big names around, it's easier to form a better environment probably but he has gone about his job as we expected and you can't criticise him in any way."

Apart from Strauss himself, there are, in truth, only two big names in English cricket and one of them, Kevin Pietersen, is here. That leaves Freddie. He would be a shoo-in for any England limited-overs XI, but the team may already be moving on without him, partly because they know they cannot sit around waiting for him to return, partly because they are beginning to realise what 11 united men can do.

Strauss rejected the assertion that a missing Flintoff made much difference, but then he would, wouldn't he? "I think this has been a bit of a long-term thing to improve the environment," he said. "Andy Flower [the England coach] and myself are very strong on that. We need a strong and vibrant environment in which they feel they are able to express themselves.

"If you get that sort of environment it does not matter too much which individuals are in it because it pulls people along. I was very happy with how Fred was in the summer. I don't think the big-name players are a problem in it, it is more getting the whole group to commit to something. I am sure Fred would be absolutely fine in this environment, but he has his injury concerns and he needs to prove to himself that he can still play international cricket and that will probably take a while."

Smith has won all his home one-day series as captain, and South Africa have lost only two out of 26 since their readmission to international cricket 17 years ago, both to Australia. "Look, I guess I am pretty philosophical about it," he said. "You can only look at the things you can control and we haven't performed up to standard in two of the three games, so we have only ourselves to blame.

"Knowing the weather was going to be bad this week, the match in Port Elizabeth was always going to be a crucial game and we never performed well enough. We have to live with that and learn from the mistakes. It is a constant battle between being at your best and developing as a team."

So much for Eeyore. Tigger, in the form of Strauss, said: "I think we have progressed quite a long way. Sometimes you need to go through those tough times to see the light where you're going wrong and where you need to be. Some things have been done differently and there have been some encouraging signs, but I would be the last person to say we're the finished article, there's still a long way to go." The journey, however, will have shortened considerably if England, weather implausibly permitting, contrive victory today.

Time for a raindance? SA weather report

Light rain is forecast for Durban this afternoon, threatening both the game and South Africa's record of never having lost a home ODI series.

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