The return to form of Michael Vaughan and another ferocious assault on South Africa's leading bowlers by Andrew Flintoff somewhat overshadowed an exquisite little innings of 37 by Rikki Clarke during England's NatWest Series victory on Tuesday evening. Clarke's innings at Edgbaston may only have lasted 34 balls but during his time at the crease the Surrey all-rounder made quite an impression.
The match against South Africa was delicately poised when Flintoff was caught at fine leg hooking. England were on 130 for 4 and still required a further 69 runs to win. That the Lancashire all-rounder had whipped the 20,000-plus crowd into a frenzy with some thunderous stroke-play did not help.
Coming in to bat after such a performance is difficult for an established player, let alone a 21-year-old in only his sixth international match. Clarke, however, did not appear fazed by the pressure of the situation. Indeed, he lined up and struck the ball like a top-order batsman. This was an innings which suggested he could well be pushing for a Test place solely as a batsman before too long.
Clarke's bowling needs to improve if he wishes to develop into a true all-rounder but his pedigree with the bat has already been seen at The Oval on numerous occasions. His positive but controlled batting is a reflection of the excellent pitches he has been brought up on in Kennington. In 16 first-class matches for Surrey the right-hander has already scored three centuries and has a batting average over 45. This, however, failed to prevent him from being dropped by his county for the match after he had gained selection for England's one-day squad.
It is unlikely that Clarke will establish himself in the England side before he makes Surrey's all-star line-up, but there is a chance. Yet it would be impossible for Adam Hollioake to leave him out should he continue to play as he did on Tuesday, when his first three scoring shots highlighted his potential. The first, a back-foot drive through point, was Athertonesque in its style. At 6ft 4ins, Clarke is a tall man and he used his full height to get over the bounce of the ball. The crispness of the stroke was superb and the ball never left the ground as it raced away for four.
The authority of the shot seemed to upset the South African fast bowler Andre Nel, not that this appears particularly hard to do. Northamptonshire supporters have had the privilege of viewing the strapping 25-year-old's confrontational approach during the first half of the summer and the fast bowler is sure to keep umpires and match referees on their toes in the forthcoming Test series
Nel, who may not be Dennis Lillee but can still send the ball down at 90 mph, proceeded to bowl England's No 6 a bouncer. Clarke, who has already acquired the strut of his Surrey team-mates, fearlessly hooked hard at the ball and watched it sail over the fielder positioned at deep square-leg for six.
With steam seemingly coming out of every orifice, Nel sprinted in again and, unintelligently this time, let Clarke have another short one. Having had the chance to get used to the pace and bounce of the pitch, he slapped that delivery for four in front of square.
Coming to terms with the power of Clarke and Flintoff is something the South Africans need to do if they are to win Saturday's final at Lord's. Their preparations start today at the Rose Bowl, Southampton, which hosts international cricket for the first time. The Proteas are unlikely to play a full-strength side against Zimbabwe but they will be keen to add greater consistency to their game before they travel to London.
Hampshire have created a wonderful arena just off the M27 and have hopes that Test cricket will quickly follow the one-day game to the south coast. Everyone at the county will have an eye on the pitch, which has received criticism since first-class cricket was first played there in 2001. To gain Test status it needs to improve, but it always takes time at new grounds for the pitch to settle down. Heath Streak, the Zimbabwe captain, is sure to get a warm reception from the county he represented in 1995.
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