Flintoff's fire puts England in control

<preform>South Africa 247 & 59-2</BR> England 359</preform>
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The Independent Online

Andrew Flintoff took England to the verge of a historic series victory yesterday with a defiant all-round display against South Africa. England's most popular cricketer has not been at his all-round best during this enthralling series but a workmanlike innings of 77, along with two late wickets, all but ensured that England will today win their first Test series in South Africa for 40 years.

Andrew Flintoff took England to the verge of a historic series victory yesterday with a defiant all-round display against South Africa. England's most popular cricketer has not been at his all-round best during this enthralling series but a workmanlike innings of 77, along with two late wickets, all but ensured that England will today win their first Test series in South Africa for 40 years.

Flintoff was not the only member of Michael Vaughan's remarkable side to shine on a rare sunny day on the high veldt. Graham Thorpe needed to show the battling qualities which have made him England's leading batsman of the past decade during a stubborn and ugly innings of 86. And Geraint Jones made the most of a tiring and dispirited attack with a swashbuckling half-century.

South Africa have not given up hope of pulling off one of the most sensational turnabouts in Test history, but they will have to take huge risks this morning if they are to level the series at 2-2. England can just sit back and enjoy watching Graeme Smith's desperate side recklessly chase runs, and this approach should give the tourists an excellent chance of clinching a 3-1 victory. Somehow South Africa, who were 59 for 2 at the close of the fourth day, need to transform a deficit of 53 into a lead of 180 to 200, and still leave themselves enough time to bowl England out.

After dismissing England for 359, the Proteas made their intentions clear when they sent Andrew Hall in at No 3, but Flintoff's aggressive bowling was too much for the attacking all-rounder. This wicket, along with that of the dangerous Herschelle Gibbs, who was unfortunate to be given out caught behind, delayed South Africa's assault and they will need to score at more than five runs an over if they want to have 50 overs at the English batsmen. South Africa have plenty of attacking batsmen but the rate at which they score will rest largely in the hands of Jacques Kallis and Smith.

Throughout this hectic tour Flintoff's bowling has been inspirational but his batting has been a major disappointment. South Africa's policy of bowling short has rattled the 27-year-old to such an extent that he scored only 136 runs in the first four Test matches and he was some distance away from being back to his brutish best yesterday.

Graham Thorpe provided Flintoff with the support he needed during the early exchanges and it was their 141-run partnership which calmed an anxious visitors' dressing-room. After losing four wickets on Monday evening England, who started the day 133 runs behind South Africa, needed a solid start in order to dent the home side's aspirations.

Thorpe has become accustomed to batting in these circumstances and his no-risk approach is ideally suited to guiding teams out of tricky situations. The 35-year-old has not been in the best of form on this tour but he loves a scrap and has extraordinary powers of concentration, qualities which enabled him to occupy the crease for almost six hours.

Lesser players attempt to hit their way out of a trough but Thorpe seldom panics and he seemed happy just to nurdle the ball into the gaps and take singles. There was the occasional sweetly timed stroke but only when the South African bowlers fed his favoured cut shot. Even against spin, he struggled to get the ball away and the left-hander was fortunate to survive three close leg before appeals from Nicky Boje and Smith.

Batting like this may be natural for Thorpe but it was strange to see Flintoff play in such a circumspect manner. Flintoff, like Thorpe, has been short of runs, but it is rare to see him outscored in any type of partnership. However, in the morning session the burly right-hander scored only 30 of the 85 runs England collected.

Flintoff's approach changed after lunch. Before the interval the powerful right-hander had been happy to duck under the short ball but after the break he decided to take the South Africans on. Makhaya Ntini was the first bowler to try his luck and in six overs he was clouted for seven fours and a six.

Andre Nel is not the sort of bowler who backs out of a contest and he, too, had a go. Flintoff found it harder to hit Nel, and was struck about the body on more than one occasion, but he also sent a couple of deliveries clattering to the boundary. Yet it was Nel who broke the partnership when he ripped out Thorpe's leg stump with a beautiful yorker. And Flintoff followed in the next over when he wafted at a wide ball from Hall and edged a simple catch to the keeper.

By this time Flintoff had begun to get a bit carried away with playing big strokes - the 30 runs he scored before lunch came off 110 balls and the 47 after came off 34 deliveries - and his demise looked imminent.

England were only 10 runs ahead of South Africa when Flintoff left the arena but Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles retained control with a lively 78-run partnership. Jones is the third member of England's middle order to have been short of runs but he decided that a positive approach was best.

The England wicketkeeper timed the ball handsomely during his 54-ball innings and struck the left-arm spin of Nicky Boje for two huge sixes. Jones became Nel's third victim when he edged a catch to first slip.

Giles' opportunities with the ball in South Africa have been limited, but he has made several important contributions with the bat. This was the sixth occasion in eight innings here that he has scored more than 25 and he appeared to be on course for a fourth Test 50 when he was bowled behind his legs by Nel.

The wholehearted but hot-headed fast bowler made short work of England's last two batsmen and finished with career best figures of 6 for 81.

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