Andrew Flintoff added further muscle to his case for becoming Michael Vaughan's successor yesterday when he posted a fourth consecutive Test half-century. England will decide in time on who will replace Vaughan when he has had enough, but during the past three weeks Flintoff has shown that he can cope with the extra pressure without it affecting his game.
If anything captaincy has made Flintoff a better and more responsible cricketer, and he emphasised this on the fourth day of the third Test when he accumulated the slowest half-century of his England career. It was just as well that Flintoff did curtail his natural game for almost three and a half hours, because without his input England would not have set India the 313 runs they require for victory.
England, meanwhile, following the late dismissal of Irfan Pathan, need nine more wickets to complete a remarkable victory and level the series. James Anderson was the bowler responsible for reducing India to 18-1, when Pathan inside edged a low full toss on to his off stump.
Flintoff has been a colossus throughout the series. He was given the job when Vaughan returned home before the first Test, and his caring and wholehearted approach has set a perfect example to those youngsters having their first experience of Test cricket. Flintoff may not be a tactical genius but the nature of the man has made debutants feel at home and fringe players feel valuable.
Flintoff and England spent most of yesterday consolidating on the strong position they had established over the opening three days. The batting was rarely appealing, and in 77.4 overs of attritional cricket they lost eight wickets while adding 160 runs to the overnight score of 31-2.
With a team missing five senior figures, England's cautious approach was understandable, if slightly surprising. After all, it is they who need to win the Test, and there were many periods of play when one wondered exactly which team was 1-0 up in the series.
These views may attract ridicule if England complete a remarkable win this morning, but it is hard to believe Australia's batsmen would have played India's spinners in a similar manner.
Flintoff and Paul Collingwood added 66 valuable runs for the sixth wicket but Owais Shah was the most composed England batsman. His foot movement was controlled and decisive, and he played some lovely shots. The best of these, a top-spin pull at a length ball from Sri Sreesanth through wide mid-on for four, had the touch of a right-handed Brian Lara about it.
Shaun Udal, the nightwatchman, gave Shah excellent support. Udal rode his luck but at least he was looking to be positive when he edged Irfan Pathan to Wasim Jaffer at second slip.
Kevin Pietersen can only bat in one way but the pitch made it difficult for him. The groundsman at the Wankhede Stadium has produced an excellent surface, giving batsmen and bowlers of every style the chance to shine. Yet the dismissal of Pietersen, brilliantly caught and bowled by Anil Kumble, highlighted how hard it had now become to score freely on this pitch. Pietersen has wonderful control of his wrists and hands but, when the ball is gripping in the surface, flicks and clips against the spin are risky. It was an attempt to do this that caused his downfall.
Shah and Collingwood survived until lunch but in the first over after the break England's grip began to waver. Shah has never been the best judge of a run and his despairing lunge was beaten by an accurate throw from Sachin Tendulkar at backward point.
Flintoff could have been dismissed on three occasions before he reached 20. He offered a tough chance to Yuvraj Singh at silly-point before scoring and was missed by Mahendra Singh Dhoni on 14 and 18. Collingwood had his own problems against the spinners before being brilliantly caught and bowled by Harbhajan Singh.
Geraint Jones top-edged a pull to give Harbhajan his second wicket and Matthew Hoggard was trapped in front. Flintoff now looked to attack but his advance down the pitch was spotted by Kumble and Dhoni completed a task he should have managed 69 runs earlier.
Anderson fell working a googly through the leg-side and was caught at slip but a more telling contribution came 25 minutes later when he bowled Pathan.
* Sachin Tendulkar will miss the one-day series against England. He has a cyst on his right shoulder and requires surgery.
Scoreboard from Bombay
India won toss; fourth day
England - First Innings 400 (A J Strauss 128, O A Shah 88, A Flintoff 50; S Sreesanth 4-70).
India - First Innings 279 (M S Dhoni 64, R Dravid 52; J M Anderson 4-40).
England - Second innings
(Overnight: 31 for 2)
O A Shah run out (Tendulkar-Dhoni) 38
164 min, 117 balls, 4 fours
S D Udal c Jaffer b Pathan 14
85 min, 51 balls, 2 fours
K P Pietersen c and b Kumble 7
30 min, 15 balls
P D Collingwood c and b Harbhajan Singh 32
160 min, 118 balls, 3 fours
*A Flintoff st Dhoni b Kumble 50
210 min, 146 balls, 6 fours, 1 six
ÝG O Jones c Pathan b Harbhajan Singh 3
33 min, 22 balls
M J Hoggard lbw b Kumble 6
30 min, 28 balls
J M Anderson c Dravid b Kumble 6
19 min, 11 balls
M S Panesar not out 0
10 min, 9 balls
Extras (lb9 w4 nb10) 23
Total (414 min, 92.4 overs) 191
Fall: 1-9 (Strauss) 2-21 (Bell) 3-61 (Udal) 4-73 (Pietersen) 5-85 (Shah) 6-151 (Collingwood) 7-157 (Jones) 8-183 (Hoggard) 9-188 (Flintoff) 10-191 (Anderson).
Bowling: Pathan 13-2-24-1 (nb2 w4) (4-1-6-0, 6-1-14-1, 3-0-4-0); Patel 13-2-39-1 (nb5) (4-0-12-1, 4-2-7-0, 2-0-7-0, 3-0-13-0); Sreesanth 13-3-30-1 (nb1) (9-2-22-1, 4-1-8-0); Kumble 30.4-13-49-4 (nb2) (2-0-3-0, 13-6-20-1, 7-4-13-0, 8.4-3-13-3); Harbhajan Singh 23-9-40-2 (1-1-0-0, 22-8-40-2).
Progress: Third day: close: 31-2 (Shah 15, Udal 2) 15 overs. Fourth day: 50: 107 min, 23.2 overs. Lunch: 85-4 (Shah 38, Collingwood 6) 41 overs. 100: 220 min, 48.1 overs. Tea: 149-5 (Collingwood 31, Flintoff 19) 71 overs. 150: 321 min, 72.1 overs. Innings closed: 4.45pm.
Flintoff's 50: 208 min, 145 balls, 6 fours, 1 six.
India - Second innings
W Jaffer not out 4
37 min, 21 balls
I K Pathan b Anderson 6
15 min, 11 balls
A Kumble not out 8
21 min, 16 balls, 1 four
Total (for 1, 37 min, 8 overs) 18
Fall: 1-6 (Pathan).
To bat: *R S Dravid, S R Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, V Sehwag, ÝM S Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh, S Sreesanth, M M Patel.
Bowling: Hoggard 4-1-7-0, Anderson 3-1-9-1, Panesar 1-0-2-0 (one spell each).
Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and S J A Taufel (Aus).
TV replay umpire: K Hariharan.
Match referee: R S Madugalle.