Flintoff the lionheart changes the pace

South Africa 247-1

For most of the week, idle speculation has concerned what bit of Andrew Flintoff's weary body might fall off next. South Africa were yesterday forced to pick up the pieces. In four spells of hostile fast bowling the all-rounder tore up the medical bulletins - demanded and issued on a daily basis as if he was an ailing head of state - into tiny shreds and flushed them away.

For most of the week, idle speculation has concerned what bit of Andrew Flintoff's weary body might fall off next. South Africa were yesterday forced to pick up the pieces. In four spells of hostile fast bowling the all-rounder tore up the medical bulletins - demanded and issued on a daily basis as if he was an ailing head of state - into tiny shreds and flushed them away.

Flintoff did not single-handedly justify Michael Vaughan's decision to field on winning the toss, since the option is in any case almost de rigueur at this ground. But it was a deeply impressive piece of work which may just ensure that England clinch their first series in this country for 40 years. He was constantly menacing, asking questions of the batsman at 90mph. Four of them, including the grandmaster Jacques Kallis, could provide no effective reply.

This propelled England to a handsome, if hardly dominant position on a pitch which was not as treacherous as was either predicted or feared. Any batsman will probably tell you, however, that you are never in on it.

Since the grandstanding finale at the Wanderers last Monday which gave England a 2-1 lead, it had been suggested with a hesitant confidence that England had finally shaken off South Africa. When Vaughan won his second toss in succession that feeling grew. The surface was green and rumours that a result pitch had been prepared were not denied with any great alacrity.

The par score for any captain who inserts the opposition is around 250 and Vaughan will undoubtedly have settled for the 247 for 9 that South Africa mustered, especially as they were 114 for 1 at one stage.

Had England's catching been sharper in the morning there would have been more early wickets. The bowler to suffer on both occasions was Stephen Harmison and it affected his entire day. His seven wickets in this series have to date cost 85.71 runs each and the last thing he needs are dropped catches. He was visibly hurt when Marcus Trescothick grassed an edge from Herschelle Gibbs at first slip, much more resigned when Andrew Strauss could not hold on to A B De Villiers at point.

It was to Flintoff that Vaughan quickly turned when there was no swift incision. Hearts were not exactly in mouths as Flintoff pushed himself into the crease, for his own is as big as a mountain. None the less, when he has been seen around since his riproaring efforts on the last day of the Fourth Test he has usually been limping.

The bone-spur injury which forced him to miss some of last summer has recurred and he had a second cortisone injection into the damaged area on Wednesday. His side strain has also been niggling, though as all fast bowlers will tell you, this is the sort of complaint that you just have to bowl through if you ever want to get on the pitch.

Flintoff immediately came to his captain's rescue by having Gibbs caught behind. He was gaining enough seam movement to keep the batsmen honest and was doing so at high pace. Whipped off after just one over, he was at his most menacing later in the day.

He disturbed Kallis at least three times by forcing one past his outside edge and having two solid shouts for leg before. The world's No 2 rated batsman was simply not allowed to settle and Flintoff removed his off stump with a ball whose full length flummoxed him.

Once Kallis goes, South Africa are desperately exposed and after tea Flintoff removed Graeme Smith and Shaun Pollock in the space of three balls. Smith had come in at No 5 to allow De Villiers to open and to shore up his side's fragile middle order. One bit of this - the opening berth - was a success.

De Villiers batted slowly but with admirable orthodoxy. He punished the bad ball, as demonstrated by his 15 fours, many of them punched off the back foot, and kept out most of the rest, unbothered by his escape. But it was possible to sense his anticipation as he entered the nineties and his sweep against Ashley Giles was inviting disaster.

Giles is a bowler now who can be relied on to take wickets at significant times for his captain. He was difficult to recognise yesterday, sporting his blue-hued sunglasses and new blond tinted hair. Not so long ago Giles was unkindly compared to a wheelie bin. Presumably he left the pitch yesterday to go off for an audition with a boy band.

There were three wickets, too, for Simon Jones, who returned to the side in place of James Anderson and had his best first-innings performance in Tests. There was not the raw speed which first brought him to attention but he found some movement.

From here, England will expect to go on to win the match. It is anticipated that the pitch will become a tad faster and kinder for batting. Vaughan probably had no option but to bowl after calling correctly once again. Only one side had decided to bat in the eight previous Tests here - and they lost. However, last year the West Indies invited South Africa to bat and saw a first-wicket partnership of 301. For a brief while yesterday, but only a brief while, it might have been thought that Vaughan had not learned from recent history.

With Flintoff in such good form after Matthew Hoggard's heroic endeavour last Monday, Vaughan perhaps assumes that he has a bowler for every occasion. But if he was prone to sleepless nights, Harmison might be causing them. He has not functioned at all as he was expected to or ought to have done on this tour and the best and most feared fast bowler in the world last year was treated often with disdain yesterday as 79 runs in 17 overs demonstrates.

The probability is that Flintoff will go home after this Test, thus missing the seven one-day internationals in 15 days, for an operation on his troublesome ankle. They may be doing his friend, Harmison, a favour if they let him catch the same flight for convalescence of a different kind.

Centurion Park Scoreboard

England won toss

South Africa - First Innings

A B de Villiers lbw b Giles 92 (Hit on front pad attempting to sweep; 257 min, 165 balls, 15 fours)

H H Gibbs c G O Jones b Flintoff 14 (Outside edge pushing hard at good-length ball; 39 min, 29 balls, 3 fours)

J A Rudolph c Key b Hoggard 33 (Fine running catch at square-leg from top edge off pull; 119 min, 83 balls, 6 fours)

J H Kallis b Flintoff 8 (Played inside the line of yorker; 33 min, 23 balls, 1 four)

*G C Smith c Trescothick b Flintoff 25 (Edge to slip from drive at wide, full-length seaming ball; 85 min, 49 balls, 3 fours)

ÝM V Boucher c Trescothick b S P Jones 25 (Regulation edge to slip feeling for good-length ball; 68 min, 58 balls, 2 fours)

S M Pollock b Flintoff 0 (Inside edge on to stumps pushing at good-length ball; 2 min, 2 balls)

N Boje c Thorpe b S P Jones 9 (Low catch at short mid-off from checked drive; 62 min, 27 balls, 1 four)

A J Hall not out 11 (40 min, 17 balls, 2 fours)

M Ntini c Hoggard b S P Jones 6 (Chipped slower ball to mid-on for tumbling catch; 11 min, 9 balls, 1 four)

A Nel not out 1 (9 min, 8 balls)

Extras (lb1 w3 nb19) 23

Total (9 wkts, 367 min, 75.1 overs) 247

Fall: 1-27 (Gibbs), 2-114 (Rudolph), 3-144 (Kallis), 4-187 (De Villiers), 5-200 (Smith), 6-200 (Pollock), 7-222 (Boucher), 8-237 (Boje), 9-245 (Ntini).

Bowling: Hoggard 18-4-64-1 (nb6) (4-1-13-0 4-2-10-0 5-0-26-1 1-0-5-0 4-1-10-0), Harmison 17-2-79-0 (w2) (6-1-26-0 3-0-24-0 6-1-15-0 2-0-14-0), Flintoff 19-6-44-4 (nb8 w1) 1-1-0-1 5-1-12-0 6-1-20-1 6-2-12-2 1-1-0-0), S P Jones 15.1-3-47-3 (nb5) (6-3-13-0 5-0-22-0 4.1-0-12-3), Giles 6-1-12-1 (1-0-5-0 5-1-7-1).

Progress: First day: rain. Play abandoned for the day at 3.30pm. Second day: 10am start, min 98 overs. 50: 64 min, 13.4 overs. 100: 137 min, 29.1 overs. Lunch: 108-1 (De Villiers 51, Rudolph 33) 32 overs. 150: 200 min, 41.2 overs. Tea: 196-4 (Smith 24, Boucher 7) 57 overs. 200: 277 min, 58.1 overs. Bad light stopped play 5.07pm.

De Villiers 50: 131 min, 81 balls, 8 fours.

England: M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, R W T Key, *M P Vaughan, G P Thorpe, A Flintoff, ÝG O Jones, A F Giles, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, S P Jones.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and S A Bucknor (WI). TV Umpire: K H Hurter.

Match referee: C H Lloyd (WI).

First Test: England won by 7 wkts (Port Elizabeth).

Second Test: Match drawn (Durban).

Third Test: South Africa won by 196 runs (Cape Town).

Fourth Test: England won by 77 runs (Johannesburg).

One-Day International series

30 January: First ODI (Johannesburg).

2 February: Second ODI (Bloemfontein, D/N).

4 February: Third ODI (Port Elizabeth, D/N).

6 February: Fourth ODI (Cape Town).

9 February: Fifth ODI (East London, D/N).

11 February: Sixth ODI (Durban, D/N).

13 February: Seventh ODI (Centurion, D/N).

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