The fire of Flintoff and Harmison lost in dark

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The Independent Online

On the dark side, spectators charged a mint to enter the ground were not allowed to watch the replays shown to the third umpire and were also ill-served as the élite of the game left the field whenever the light deteriorated. Not that Graeme Smith and Virender Sehwag would have agreed as they traipsed from the field in the gloomiest conditions of a curtailed day. Until those wickets were lost in the gloaming, the World had fought back impressively.

Certainly, the bowling was terrific. An enormous total seemed inevitable as Australia reached 152 for 1 with Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting in full flow. Hayden had batted in his new, measured style and was moving massively towards a third century in four Test innings, his brief appearance on the final afternoon in Kennington spoiling his run. Ponting was advancing forcefully in the manner of a man who has belatedly turned his back upon suburban sophistication. Now that Ponting has restored instinct, his captaincy will improve by leaps and bounds. The rush to appoint Shane Warne will fade.

None of the bowlers had made much of an impression and the pitch looked as flat as rolled dough. Then Steve Harmison changed the mood with a slower ball to put beside the beauty he produced to remove Michael Clarke in Birmingham. In a trice the visitors had gained entry into the home side's shaky middle-order.

Clarke himself was promptly confounded by a fast off-cutter that beat him as much for pace as movement. He is a delightful player whose game currently lacks rigour. Harmison continued to probe genially but it took the appearance of another Englishman to widen the breach. Andrew Flintoff had bowled splendidly on the second morning, swinging the ball late and with pace. Now he unleashed numerous searing deliveries during a superbly sustained effort that deserved more wickets than the cricketing gods bestowed upon it.

Flintoff's first scalp was memorable. As he walked back to the pavilion, Ponting must have wondered how he touched a swift leg-cutter that reared past his chest as it sped towards the World's bemused stumper. Had his form been poor he would have missed it by a foot. Such are the joys of the game. Maintaining his hostility, the Lancastrian later took two further wickets, both belonging to lower-order men. Hereabouts, Flintoff looked happier than might be expected from a man trapped in fame.

In between the great all-rounder's wickets, something strange happened to his bowling colleague, a cheerful fellow called Muttiah Muralitharan. Hitherto Murali had been wheeling away without much effect. His bowling has changed over the years. Nowadays he aims his off-break at the wickets so that it is hard to tell apart from the doosra. Judging by the expression on Mark Boucher's map for most of the innings, the ploy is working. As usual, the Sri Lankan had been bowling wholeheartedly but the batsmen had been playing him intelligently, working the ball into gaps, using their feet and sweeping powerfully.

Suddenly the spinner sprang to life. Inspired by the rush of wickets, Muralitharan put an extra flick on his deliveries whereupon they seemed to be landing upon a quixotic trampoline. His over following Ponting's dismissal will linger long in the memory. Delivered from around the wicket, another skill he has added to his repertoire, every ball curled through the air, dropped on a length and jumped like a surprised child.

As far as Simon Katich was concerned, the bowler was talking an unknown language. Searching for an answer, he tried stepping down the pitch and was left groping. He tried defence and was alarmed as the ball rapped his gloves. Finally, he sought the refuge of a single and edged a return catch. He is in a tight spot. Hampshire have five players in this Australian side, a tally that may not last much longer.

None of the tail-enders lasted long, Warne gliding obligingly to short mid-wicket, Glenn McGrath scooping to fine leg and Brett Lee clouting to long-on where Muralitharan took a fine catch. The cricket had been lively. Smith's men were chasing 355 on a third-day pitch. Adding their best scores on Australian pitches, they were capable of reaching 976.

Needing the sun to shine, the visitors began in fading light and Smith was soon beaten by a full-length delivery from McGrath. Anxious to keep playing, Ponting turned to spin and was rewarded as Sehwag drove loosely. No further wickets fell before the umpires called a final halt to proceedings.

It was just as well the cricket was exciting because in other respects a tolerant crowd was short-changed. If appeals are to be referred to the third umpire then spectators must be kept in the picture. Anything else is downright rude. Crowds create atmosphere and ought to be treated with consideration. Instead, they were forced to wait as the footage was studied by the third umpire, reporters and television viewers alike.

As it happens, the idea of referring appeals has been expertly applied by the experienced campaigners standing in this match. Both on-field men have been prepared to make decisions, sending Clarke and Boucher on their way in the first innings. Darrell Hair has also been in top form as third umpire. Accordingly, the right decisions have been reached and the trial has surpassed expectations.

However, it is not wise to change anything until enough evidence has been gathered. Breaks for bad light are a blight on the game. Suffice it to say that the adage of "the show must go on" ought to apply to cricket. Instead, the players were ludicrously taken from the field when spinners were bowling at the Oval. Yesterday too much play was lost in spasmodically murky conditions. Helmeted batsman playing on rolled surfaces do not need such protection. No game lasts long that cheats its audience. The pampered élite must be told to get on with the game.