Flintoff injury deepens gloom as England stumble towards defeat

<preform>South Africa 441 &amp; 222-8 dec England 163 &151-5</preform>
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The Independent Online

England could lose more than a Test match after another gruelling day attempting to stave off a tenacious and hungry South African side. England finished the fourth day of the third Test on 151 for 5, and requiring their final five batsmen to occupy the crease for 90 overs, or score the small matter of 350 runs, if they wish to avoid defeat. Following a year of remarkable comebacks it would be unwise to write off England's chances completely but Michael Vaughan's side must surely be heading for their first loss in 14 Tests. The expected South African victory would allow Graeme Smith's team to draw level in this five Test series.

England could lose more than a Test match after another gruelling day attempting to stave off a tenacious and hungry South African side. England finished the fourth day of the third Test on 151 for 5, and requiring their final five batsmen to occupy the crease for 90 overs, or score the small matter of 350 runs, if they wish to avoid defeat. Following a year of remarkable comebacks it would be unwise to write off England's chances completely but Michael Vaughan's side must surely be heading for their first loss in 14 Tests. The expected South African victory would allow Graeme Smith's team to draw level in this five Test series.

The result of this game, and the quality of cricket England are currently playing, is a worry for Vaughan but the side injury which caused Andrew Flintoff to leave the field during the morning session will be of equal concern. The Lancashire all-rounder is the pivotal figure in this England team and the possibility of him being unable to bowl in the final two Test matches could have a major effect on the outcome of the series. Flintoff has been worked harder than any other England bowler during the festive season and he pulled up quickly after the fifth ball in his fourth over of the day. On feeling discomfort he stretched his side, bowled the final ball of the over off four or five paces, took his cap from the umpire and retired to fine leg. Grimacing, he then continued to stretch the affected area before signalling to Vaughan that he would like to leave the field.

After several minutes in the dressing-room the 27-year-old appeared on the players' balcony with an ice pack strapped to the left side of his body. The complaint failed to stop him from batting in the afternoon but he looked restricted before Shaun Pollock found the outside edge of his bat. At the close of play Flintoff was sent for a scan, the results of which will dictate whether or not he will be able to bowl in the fourth Test, which starts in a weeks time. But bowling injuries in this area do not just go away, and they can take up to six weeks to recover from.

Before damaging his own body Flintoff injured Matthew Hoggard when a full-blooded drive struck him on the right heel in the nets before the start of play. As a precaution the Yorkshireman stayed off the field with his foot in an ice pack.

It is Flintoff's presence in the middle order which allows them to play five bowlers, seven batsmen and a wicket-keeper. The inability of Vaughan's attack to dismiss South Africa cheaply could tempt England into playing an extra bowler, James Anderson, in Johannesburg but it would be risky to drop a batsman from a side that is struggling to score runs.

Although England have twice saved matches against South Africa from similar positions to that they found themselves in yesterday morning - in 1995-96 when Michael Atherton scored an unbeaten 185 in Johannesburg, and at Old Trafford in 1998 when Alec Stewart's side batted out 171 overs in their second innings - they were always unlikely to save this game.

But once again the shot selection of two of England's batsmen failed to help their cause. Robert Key and Vaughan were beginning to frustrate Smith's side with their obdurate batting but then both lost their heads in a crazy two-over period.

Key had shown plenty of composure during the three and a half hours he spent at the crease, and during this time he became the first England batsman in six innings to score more runs than Andrew Strauss. But then the Kent opener decided to come down the pitch and work Nicky Boje through the leg side. Playing a shot like this against a left-arm spinner is always dangerous, but particularly so on a pitch which has been baked dry by a hot sun for four days. Key missed a ball that turned appreciably and was left stranded three yards down the pitch when A B de Villiers broke the stumps.

Vaughan, looking on from the non-striker's end, could not have been impressed but it would have been impossible for him to chastise Key following his dismissal in the very next over. The South Africans obviously think that the England captain is vulnerable against the short ball. In Durban, Makhaya Ntini forced Vaughan to glove a well-directed bouncer through to the keeper, and the same bowler felt he had removed him in a similar manner here when he sparred at a delivery bowled at his body from round the wicket. Television replays suggested the ball touched the right-hander's glove on its way through, but the umpire Daryl Harper gave him not out. Two balls later Ntini gave Vaughan another bouncer but this time he chose to hook, hitting straight to Jacques Rudolph at deep square leg.

Vaughan will defend his shot, saying that he wanted to play his natural game, but this was not the shot of a man who believed his side could save a Test match. It also meant that Vaughan has now scored only 220 runs in his last 11 Test innings.

Having been set 501 to win, England lost Marcus Trescothick to the second ball of the innings. Smith should take great credit for the dismissal because many of us were wondering why he had placed Hashim Amla at short mid-off, 10 yards away from the bat. But amazingly Trescothick scooped a Pollock delivery straight into the fielder's hands.

Strauss and Key were building a useful partnership before Boje turned one out of the bowler's foot-holes and trapped the England opener in front.

Television replays indicated the ball had shaved Strauss's bat before it struck him on the pad but it was easy to see why Steve Bucknor raised his finger.

The fourth day began with a dreadful hour of cricket. South Africa, it is hoped, came out to bat looking for quick runs, but they failed to materialise. Graeme Smith's side, on 184 for 3, were already 462 runs ahead of England but they seemed to have little idea of how to hasten their run scoring.

Boeta Dippenaar chipped the second ball of the day to Vaughan at mid-wicket and he was quickly joined in the South African dressing-room by Boje and Jacques Kallis, who foolishly ran themselves out. Amla and De Villiers added a bit of momentum to the home team's cause but both fell attempting to play the hook shot. South Africa lost 5 for 38 in this dire period of play but it had little to do with the skill of England's bowlers, who spent more time aiming for the return crease than the stumps.

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