Andrew Flintoff was at his brilliant best again yesterday, striking four huge sixes and nine thunderous fours in a match-winning innings of 99. But it was not the powerful stroke-play of the all-rounder, or that this awesome display took Michael Vaughan's side to a 70-run victory over India, and into an unassailable 2-0 lead in the NatWest Challenge, which highlighted why he has become the most loved England cricketer since Ian Botham.
After guiding his team from the hazardous position of 105-4 to 279 with Paul Collingwood - who scored an equally impressive 79 not out in a record fifth-wicket partnership for England - Flintoff had every right to push the 93rd ball he faced for a single, and collect his third one-day hundred of the summer.
But this option would not have entered Flintoff's head because his huge, hulking 26-year-old body does not contain a selfish bone. Quick runs were all that interested "Freddie" and in an attempt to score them he top edged a humongous heave. The delivery from Ajit Agarkar was intended to land in the top tier of the Lock and Laker Stand but Rahul Dravid, the Indian wicket-keeper, took the steepling catch.
Falling one run short of a personal milestone sends most batsmen apoplectic but Flintoff is not that sort of character. As he made his way from the pitch he had a huge smile on his face. Flintoff knows that he is in the entertainment industry and at this moment in time he is as good as anyone in the business.
England had been in trouble. Marcus Trescothick, Vikram Solanki and 11 ordinary overs of seam bowling from India had allowed the home side to reach 71, and in a desperate attempt to halt the flow of runs Sourav Ganguly asked Harbhajan Singh to bowl. It worked. The spinner bagged Trescothick in his first over and Vaughan in his third.
The dry, abrasive pitch gave Harbhajan spin, and this encouraged the Indian captain to bowl Virender Sehwag, who soon dismissed Andrew Strauss and the dangerous Solanki. With spinning fingers twitching, fielders on their toes, England on 105-4 and a vast proportion of the capacity crowd cheering them on India were suddenly in control.
And they remained so until the 32nd over when Harbhajan finished a wonderful bowling spell of 2-14 in 10 overs. Before, Flintoff would have attempted to dominate rather than see off the main threat - tactics which would have been his downfall. That he pushed the ball into the gaps for singles and treated Harbhajan with respect was another example of growing maturity.
The presence of Collingwood at the other end helped but there was little he could do to becalm Flintoff from this point on. Sehwag was hit twice into the stands for six but his half century had taken 66 balls.
The next 49 runs took just 27 balls, containing four more boundaries and two sixes. The first of these, struck of the hapless Lakshmipathy Balaji, could easily have started the redevelopment of the Pavilion End here, so hard did it crash into the Alec Bedser Stand.
The medium pacer dropped Flintoff at deep square-leg on 80 and, boy, did he regret it - Flintoff smashed him for two fours and a six in an over that conceded 22 runs. The loss of Flintoff, who became the fourth England player to fall on 99 in one-day cricket - Chris Broad, Allan Lamb and Geoff Boycott were the others, and all four took place at the Oval - did not slow the run-rate.
The 18 runs Collingwood and Geraint Jones crashed off the final over allowed England to add 100 to their total in 10 overs.
Carnage like this often affects the fielding side when they come out to bat. Sehwag was trapped plum by Darren Gough but the Ganguly's run-out was straight from an under-13 match. The Indian captain dug out a yorker from Stephen Harmison and called for a legitimate single to mid-off. VVS Laxman was asleep and belatedly answered Ganguly's call. But he ran straight into Ganguly, knocking his bat out of his hand. Ganguly attempted to make his ground but was beaten by a direct hit from Flintoff. He kicked the ground, turnedand looked at his team-mate mouthing something along the lines of "What the **** were you doing there?".
In many ways this moment summed up much of India's cricket in the first two games of this three match series. It was unathletic and disorganised.
Laxman and Mohammad Kaif kept the game alive with a sumptuous partnership of 89 but both fell to Ashley Giles as the tourists attempted to keep up with the run-rate. In between Alex Wharf dismissed Rahul Dravid for the second match in a row and following the departure of these three the game was all but over.
Gough claimed his 197th, 198th and 199th one-day wickets as the Indian tail slogged wildly but a defiant and entertaining last-wicket partnership of 64 prevented the stalwart from becoming the first England bowler to take 200 limited-over wickets.
Their fun was ruined by who else but Flintoff.
India won toss
M E Trescothick c Balaji b Harbhajan Singh 27
51 min, 41 balls, 5 fours
V S Solanki c Dravid b Sehwag 48
91 min, 56 balls, 8 fours
*M P Vaughan c Dravid b Harbhajan Singh 4
17 min, 12 balls, 1 four
A J Strauss c Ganguly b Sehwag 2
9 min, 9 balls
A Flintoff c Dravid b Agarkar 99
112 min, 93 balls, 9 fours, 4 sixes
P D Collingwood not out 79
111 min, 85 balls, 11 fours
ÝG O Jones not out 12
10 min, 6 balls, 1 four, 1 six
Extras (b 1, lb 5, w 28, nb 2, pens 0) 36
Total (5 wkts, 203 min, 50 overs) 307
Fall: 1-71 (Trescothick); 2-93 (Vaughan); 3-98 (Strauss); 4-105 (Solanki); 5-279 (Flintoff).
Did not bat: A F Giles, A G Wharf, D Gough, S J Harmison.
Bowling: Pathan 10-1-58-0 (w4) (5-1-29-0, 2-0-13-0, 3-0-16-0); Balaji 8-0-77-0 (nb1,w18) (2-0-8-0, 3-0-27-0, 3-0-42-0); Agarkar 6-0-60-1 (nb1,w2) (3-0-25-0, 1-0-12-0, 2-0-23-1); Harbhajan Singh 10-2-14-2 (one spell); Sehwag 10-0-51-2 (w2) (7-0-29-2, 1-0-4-0, 2-0-18-0); Gavaskar 3-0-18-0 (w2); Yuvraj Singh 3-0-23-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 36 min, 49 balls. 15 overs: 93-1. 100: 84 min, 110 balls. 150: 134 min, 203 balls. 200: 158 min, 237 balls. 250: 181 min, 272 balls. 300: 201 min, 299 balls.
Flintoff 50: 79min, 66 balls, 5 fours, 2 sixes.
Collingwood 50: 74min, 62 balls, 8 fours.
*S C Ganguly run out (Flintoff) 7
15 min, 10 balls, 1 four
V Sehwag lbw b Gough 0
1 min, 2 balls
V V S Laxman c Collingwood b Giles 33
82 min, 43 balls, 5 fours
Mohammad Kaif c Vaughan b Giles 51
94 min, 73 balls, 8 fours
ÝR S Dravid c Jones b Wharf 1
10 min, 8 balls
Yuvraj Singh c Vaughan b Gough 24
50 min, 40 balls, 2 fours
R S Gavaskar b Giles 13
17 min, 17 balls, 2 fours
A B Agarkar c Trescothick b Gough 22
28 min, 20 balls, 2 fours, 2 sixes
I K Pathan c Vaughan b Gough 0
2 min, 2 balls
Harbhajan Singh not out 41
49 min, 39 balls, 5 fours, 1 six
L Balaji b Flintoff 18
41 min, 30 balls, 1 four
Extras (lb 11, w 11, nb 5,) 27
Total (199 min, 46.3 overs) 237
Fall: 1-2 (Sehwag), 2-10 (Ganguly), 3-99 (Laxman), 4-102 (Dravid), 5-113 (Mohammad Kaif), 6-143 (Gavaskar), 7-169 (Yuvraj Singh), 8-169 (Pathan), 9-173 (Agarkar), 10-237 (Balaji).
Bowling: Gough 10-0-50-4 (nb2,w3) (5-0-24-1, 5-0-26-3); Harmison 8-0-51-0 (nb1,w7) (5-0-31-0, 3-0-20-0); Flintoff 7.3-1-31-1 (nb1,w1) (4-0-23-0, 2-1-1-0, 1.3-0-7-1); Wharf 6-0-36-1 (nb1) (1-0-13-0, 3-0-10-1, 2-0-13-0); Giles 10-1-26-3; Vaughan 5-0-32-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 48 min, 61 balls. 15 overs: 82-2. 100: 89 min, 114 balls. 150: 135 min, 194 balls. 200: 177 min, 249 balls.
Mohammad Kaif 50: 90 min, 68 balls, 8 fours.
ENGLAND WON BY 70 RUNS
Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and M R Benson (Eng).
TV replay umpire: N J Llong (Eng).
Match referee: M J Procter.
Record fifth wicket partnerships in one-day game:
223 M Azharuddin & A D Jadeja; India v Sri Lanka, Colombo, 17 August 1997.
186* G W Flower & M W Goodwin; Zimbabwe v West Indies, Chester-le-Street, 16 July 2000.
183* J H Kallis & J N Rhodes; South Africa v Pakistan, Kingsmead, 3 April 1998.
174 P D Collingwood & A Flintoff; England v India, The Oval, 3 September 2004.
172* M G Bevan & D S Lehmann; Australia v West Indies, Grenada, 14 April 1999.