Operation Ashes as Flintoff flies down the home straight

Andrew Flintoff bowled through the pain barrier yesterday to place England at last in full view of their first Test series win in South Africa for 40 years. It is the sort of thing that fast bowlers habitually do, but it was another titanic effort from Flintoff.

Andrew Flintoff bowled through the pain barrier yesterday to place England at last in full view of their first Test series win in South Africa for 40 years. It is the sort of thing that fast bowlers habitually do, but it was another titanic effort from Flintoff.

It may also have been his last - or at least his penultimate - hurrah on this trip, since it is beginning to seem certain that he will be sent home before the one-day series, which starts next weekend, with the main business of the winter done and the small matter of the summer's Ashes campaign ahead.

Flintoff went into the final Test with a side strain and, more significantly, a bone spur on his ankle, a recurrence of the injury he had last summer. A cortisone injection in the middle of last week eradicated some of the pain, but not all.

"It's slightly worse again," said Flintoff after taking four of South Africa's first- innings wickets for 44 runs to take his haul for the series to 21 and reduce the home side to 247 for 9. "My priority is to get through this game. I can't run in thinking about it, I've just got to get through my bowling and batting and then at the end of the match I'll think about it."

The probability is growing with each ball that Flintoff will fly home this week for an operation, which will give him time to recuperate before the Ashes. Missing a seven-match one-day series seems a small price to pay for his presence then.

He was at his most hostile yesterday, removing both Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith in the home side's middle order. Smith had dropped down from the opening spot to try to lend some solidity down below but he made only 25 before failing to appreciate that Flintoff was getting just enough movement and edging to slip.

England could feel satsified with their day's work but their coach, Duncan Fletcher, was seen in a forceful exchange with the umpires, Steve Bucknor and Aleem Dar, after bad light ended play. Fletcher's predecessor, David Lloyd, now a Sky commentator, watched the covers going on when play was called off and spotted that a polythene sheet was placed directly over the pitch without the blanket which soaks up the surface moisture. Had this gone unchecked the pitch would have sweated and made batting a tricky proposition to say the least. Lloyd let the England camp know, Fletcher let the umpires know and the blanket was put in place.

This last act means that England should be in charge of the match after inserting the opposition. "We didn't bowl as well as we should have done in the morning but we talked about it at lunch and things changed," said Flintoff. "I just want to get through this Test now." England need him to do precisely that.

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