Flintoff injects life into England

All-rounder spurs Vaughan's men in cameo role as he turns heads by turning another match on its head

As the sun at last broke through a cloudless sky in the middle of the afternoon yesterday, the debate on Andrew Flintoff's immediate future as a bowler was just hotting up. About 30 minutes later, amid a profusion of shattered stumps, he had put it into abeyance and made a substantial body of opinion look daft.

As the sun at last broke through a cloudless sky in the middle of the afternoon yesterday, the debate on Andrew Flintoff's immediate future as a bowler was just hotting up. About 30 minutes later, amid a profusion of shattered stumps, he had put it into abeyance and made a substantial body of opinion look daft.

This was some sleight of hand - or of dodgy ankle - even by his considerable standards, and his three wickets in 13 balls for no runs confirmed several things.

First, after a prolonged skirmish, England had wrestled control and probably an unassailable winning position in the First Test, and possibly the npower Series. Second, it demonstrated that Flintoff is becoming a man to turn matches on their heads in the most unlikely circumstances. Third, it offered a necessary boost to the reputation of cortisone injections.

West Indies were bowled out for 416, some 152 runs behind England, and while it might have been considerably worse - had England gathered more runs, as they expected, or had the tourists crumbled, as some schools of thought predicted - it was not exactly a position of promise. The pitch, more featherbed than bed of nails, was holding up well, but West Indies will have to bat fourth on it.

England were posed few difficulties in the evening when they batted again. If they had not done so already - and they almost certainly had - their first objective was to make sure West Indies could not win the contest. The next is to give themselves a big enough advantage and sufficient time to take a 1-0 lead, as most observers expected they would.

To save this match Brian Lara's side will need rigid discipline and probably two or three men to add to Shivnarine Chanderpaul's century yesterday, a composed effort that was his first in England and played always to his strengths. It should be beyond them, and they certainly could do without the umpiring errors that marred the early part of the reply and which were more glaring because they accounted for two quick wickets.

Flintoff's part in their eventual downfall was surprising, not because of the manner in which he did it but because he did it at all. He came into this match as he had gone into the NatWest Series, purely as a batsman. This was never made official, and when he had a cortisone injection in his injured left foot on Monday morning - somewhat to his bemusement, having had 15 such shots in his back earlier in his career - the prognosis became more complicated.

On Friday afternoon, Dr Peter Gregory, the England team's chief medical officer, said: "Andrew is making good progress in his recovery from injury and we have been reassured by expert medical opinion that provided he remains pain-free, then he will be able to bowl for England in this Test match."

Finally, almost a day later and in the 76th over of the innings, he was thrown the ball. It looked like a desperate act by England's captain, Michael Vaughan, who needed a wicket, and after three overs it looked worse than that. Flintoff was running in if not half-heartedly, then at half-throttle.

He might not have been feeling pain - the object of the cortisone - but he did not look like a man who was convinced the spur growing from his left ankle was much improved. There was no zest in his action and there was less off the pitch. After the second new ball produced only one wicket, Vaughan called on him again. Much shaking of heads ensued, followed by questions about precisely what the hell England thought they were doing.

Then, Flintoff bowled the troublesome Omari Banks off his pads as he played one extravagant shot too many. The ball splayed all three stumps. Tino Best played all round the next ball and again the stumps were shattered. Flintoff missed with the hat-trick ball, but he was bounding in by now, with the crowd roaring on their favourite son and the adrenalin doubtless surging through his veins alongside the cortisone.

It was all but inevitable that he would remove Pedro Collins, as he did nine balls later, the ball crashing into the three poles one more time. And therefore it was mildly surprising that Ashley Giles should deprive England's prized all-rounder of a fourth wicket when he bowled the hapless Fidel Edwards.

Considering their misfortune with umpires, or at least umpire Daryl Harper on this occasion, West Indies might have settled for trailing only by 152. At least it avoided the ignominy of failing to meet the follow-on target. It matters not whether you are asked to do so or not, for the fact is that you have given the opposition the right to decide your immediate fate.

Despite the misjudgements which in the course of things always happen to the side with enough other problems, they did not buckle. The state of the pitch had something to do with this; so did England's recently vaunted bowling, that largely failed to elicit a response from it. But so too did the West Indies' fighting spirit.

Dwayne Bravo, in his debut Test, accompanied Chanderpaul for almost 38 overs as they shared a fifth-wicket partnership of 125. Bravo is only 20, he is raw, but he has the makings of an all-rounder. He played with enviable maturity and good sense. He was on the verge of a merited half-century when Simon Jones extracted life from the pitch, which had looked about as likely as extracting coal from South Welsh pits these days. Bravo did well to fend it to the other Jones, Geraint behind the stumps, and he held on above his head.

Ridley Jacobs hung around, biffing when he could before he edged Matthew Hoggard. It is often said about Hoggard that he is shorn of most of his strength when the ball is not swinging. This may be so, but he was straight and purposeful in two spells yesterday that were designed to keep batsmen honest.

Banks, tall and driving down the ground, then ensured that he and Chanderpaul went past the initial target of 369. But Flintoff ensured that they would not seriously threaten England's total. Chanderpaul, who hit 15 fours in his unbeaten stay, might have done more to try to gain the strike, but it is hard to think straight when forces of nature are in town.

The debate about Flintoff's bowling and his ankle spur, which has abated but is not cured, might and needs to be resumed. But not when he makes such a decisive practical intervention.

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