Samit Patel bowled England to an unexpected NatWest Series-winning, 126-run victory over South Africa here yesterday, but it was Andrew Flintoff who underlined the team's new-found confidence and maturity with a courageous unbeaten 78.
Flintoff's skill in successfully managing the second half of England's innings provided them with rarely seen composure during a difficult period, allowing the team to post the imposing total of 296 for 7 in their allotted 50 overs. In reply South Africa once again failed to present a meaningful challenge, succumbing meekly to Patel, who took 5 for 41 in the tourists' inadequate score of 170, a response that handed Kevin Pietersen's England a richly deserved and unassailable 3-0 lead in the five-match series.
"One of my biggest goals was trying to get guys playing to their best potential improving every single day, loving playing for England, loving the badge and just walking out there and fulfilling every single bit of talent that is in the dressing room," said Pietersen. "We've come in as underdogs for sure but we've hit our straps in every department. The boys have been magnificent, it's an exciting place to be, the England dressing room. I'm a very privileged person. But we want to improve and we want to try to win it 5-0."
The success moved England up the world rankings, and should they notch up a 5-0 triumph they will be rated the second best one-day team on the planet. The return of Flintoff has had a huge influence. He not only provides the team with two players, he supplies it with two match-winners. With the ball he was as reliable as ever, taking 2 for 33 in seven hostile overs, but it was with the bat he starred.
And for the second half of his innings, after being struck hard on the head by a Morne Morkel bouncer on 39, he was probably seeing stars. The blow dazed Flintoff, forcing the all-rounder to have a five-minute "time out" with the England physiotherapist. But even before the whack Flintoff had shown responsibility and care. On previous occasions he has been guilty of giving his wicket away softly in tricky situations, but here he batted by example, seeing England through to the final overs and then hitting out strongly. With useful assistance from Patel and Luke Wright, England managed to add 112 runs in the final 15 overs of their innings.
To overcome a score of 296 a team need quick runs at the start, but once again South Africa were unable to master England's fast bowlers. James Anderson, Stephen Harmison and Flintoff took a wicket each, and A B de Villiers was run out after taking a suicidal second run to Harmison at fine leg, before Patel was introduced into England's attack.
Patel is never going to be a spin bowler in the Monty Panesar class, but he brings an excellent all-round package to the England side. Every aspect of his game is filled with energy and each was outstanding yesterday.
With the bat Patel showed composure and skill during his 31; in the field he took a good catch and almost ran Herschelle Gibbs out with a direct hit from square leg; and with the ball he superbly backed up the excellent opening spells of the fast bowlers. Graeme Swann, who lost his place to Patel, may have seen his chance of earning a slice of Sir Allen Stanford's $20m (£11m) slip through his fingers like Antiguan sand.
Ian Bell and Matthew Prior gave England the perfect start on an overcast morning. The pair were initially watchful but the nature of England's innings, and indeed the match, changed in the remarkable fourth over of the day. In it Makhaya Ntini beat the outside edge of Bell or Prior's bat four times, but in between he bowled a couple of no-balls, with the resultant free hits being walloped for four and six. In total the over conceded 17 runs.
Bell and Prior never looked back, missing or safely edging the occasional good delivery for four and dispatching a regular serving of bad ones to the boundary. Bell was the aggressor, reaching his half-century off his 36th ball. England's hundred was brought up in the 16th over and it is hard to remember the team making a more positive start.
Prior's enjoyment ended when he spliced a pull at Albie Morkel to extra cover, and his departure quietened Bell down. An England innings rarely passes without incident, and when three wickets fell for the addition of just 11 runs it appeared a good start was about to be wasted.
Bell walked in front of an off-break from Johan Botha and was trapped plumb in front for 73, while Owais Shah inside-edged a push at Kallis on to his stumps. As always, Pietersen was the man South Africa wanted, and they got him on five when he played around a straight ball from Kallis.
Fortunately for England Flintoff was on hand, guiding the team to a memorable win.
Live scoreboard from tomorrow's fourth one-day international with South Africa at independent.co.uk/livecricket
South Africa won toss
I R Bell lbw b Botha 73
†M J Prior c Gibbs b JA Morkel 33
O A Shah b Kallis 23
*K P Pietersen lbw b Kallis 5
A Flintoff not out 78
P D Collingwood c Boucher b Botha 14
S R Patel b Ntini 31
L J Wright c Gibbs b Steyn 17
S C J Broad not out 0
Extras (lb3 w16 nb3) 22
Total (for 7, 50 overs) 296
Fall: 1-101 2-144 3-146 4-155 5-182 6-256 7-295.
Did not bat: S J Harmison, J M Anderson.
Bowling: Steyn 10-0-67-1; Ntini 9-1-68-1 (2nb); M Morkel 10-1-51-0 (1nb); A Morkel 5-0-30-1, Botha 9-0-35-2; Kallis 7-0-42-2.
H M Amla c Prior b Harmison 46
H H Gibbs c Shah b Anderson 12
†J H Kallis c Patel b Flintoff 9
A B de Villiers run out 12
J P Duminy c Prior b Flintoff 18
*M V Boucher b Patel 19
J A Morkel c and b Patel 16
J Botha b Patel 17
M Morkel c Broad b Patel 6
D W Steyn not out 5
M Ntini c Prior b Patel 0
Extras (b5 lb4 w1) 10
Total (42.4 overs) 170
Fall: 1-19 2-67 3-77 4-82 5-114 6-134 7-142 8-160 9-170.
Bowling: Anderson 7-0-17-1; Broad 6-1-28-0; Harmison 9-1-28-1; Flintoff 7-0-33-2 (1w); Patel 9.4-2-41-5; Collingwood 4-0-14-0.
Umpires: N J Long (Eng) and S J A Taufel (Aus).
3 questions for Jonathan Agnew
1. What do you think of Kevin Pietersen as England captain?
"It will be interesting to see how he is with the other players. I don't think he has the easiest of relationships [with them]. They respect him hugely as a cricketer. In one or two cases he has got to try to convince them to respect him as a man."
2. Did player power cause the postponement of this autumn's Champions Trophy?
"The Champions Trophy is irrelevant as a tournament and that decision [to cancel it] reflects where it sits in terms of priority with the players. But I feel sorry for Pakistan. I don't know what they are going to do because a lot of people simply won't go there."
3. Is Australian pre-eminence in the world game coming to an end?
"A guarded yes. They still have some brilliant cricketers and confidence, which takes time to chip away. The Ashes next year will be bigger than 2005. The whole country will be really up for it and that will make it really hard for Australia: it will be patriotism bordering on jingoism."