Flintoff's return to batting form lifts England

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The Independent Online

It turned out yesterday that the story of three England cricketers being hit by pellets while fielding on the boundary was a load of small balls. The Indian papers, if not the authorities, poured scorn on the peculiar English sense of humour and the squeamishness of their players as the teams prepared for the sixth – if not definitely decisive – one-day international in Bombay tomorrow.

The tourists won the fifth match by two runs here, despite the pellets and their own fielding errors after demonstrating a collective determination which was almost frightening and was certainly novel in its intensity.

India's formidable batting, as embodied by Sachin Tendulkar, makes them favourites to win the series 4-2 at the Wankhede Stadium tomorrow, but a 3-3 draw is now not as ridiculous as it once seemed.

To England it would represent real progress. To India it would mean the inevitable sacking of their captain, Sourav Ganguly.

What was initially feared by England to be serious crowd misconduct which threatened their players here on Thursday – a scenario promoted by England officials who talked of a pellet gun being fired – was downgraded to a bit of fun involving a couple of bhopoos, the little paper trumpets blown by small children. The official line was that it might have been dangerous, but it wasn't.

The Hindustani Times said of the incident, that although English teams had developed a reputation for being squeamish, they largely "proved reasonably well-behaved this time round. Until the pellets rained down on them. Or at least they thought they did." Andrew Flintoff, the last of the trio to be struck by what "felt like a sting" said: "I was worried because I wasn't wearing sunglasses and obviously thought about my eyes. Otherwise I probably would have let it go.

"There's always things being thrown on the boundary here but it doesn't cause too many problems with a plastic bottle or a banana. They're very enthusiastic and they love their cricket. They've shouted things out at me on the boundary all tour. It's like being at Headingley."

Of slightly more significance to Flintoff, to England and perhaps to the crowd, pellet wielding sections and otherwise, is the all-rounder's return to batting form. His punishingly attractive half-century here saw England to a total which was sufficient to worry India. Without his 52 from 39 balls, India would have had the tourists well within their sights from the start.

"It was good to feel the ball coming out of the middle again," he said. "I felt like a batsman again. I really don't care what number I bat, I'll go in anywhere."

Flintoff made his half-century at No 4 with England needing quick runs. He is likely to be moved up and down the order in future. England are anxious for their batsmen to become settled in a particular position before becoming too flexible, but the demands of individual matches might make that a difficult prospect.

Flintoff is one of England's few big shot players. Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Graham Thorpe, nominally at Nos 3, 4 and 5, are mostly accumulators of varying speeds.

Flintoff also took the new ball ahead of Darren Gough, the first time he had used a white new ball. It was not an overwhelming success as India romped away to their usual rapid start, but the experiment may bear repeating, if not tomorrow.

Flintoff has made significant advances since he was summoned from the England Academy in Adelaide at short notice for the Test series here before Christmas. How crucial he is to the advances made by England.

"It's fantastic to think we could level the series. Not many people expected us to do well. If we can win on Sunday it would be a great achievement." So it would. "Freddie" Flintoff may need to play a major role again.

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