Andrew Flintoff’s irresistable force keeps England alive

For a long time yesterday the England team resembled a man hanging from a cliff by his finger nails, clawing and scraping the rock-face but slipping ever more gradually into the abyss below. They had scrapped and fought simply to stay in touch, their skill levels never quite matching the sweat produced. Then, in the final hour of the day, Andrew Flintoff summoned up every last ounce of energy and inspiration to produce a magical six overs that brought him the wickets of Jacques Kallis and Villiers, with the result that his team will arrive back this morning confident that the series is not beyond them.

This was an hour of cricket the meaning of which stretched way beyond the importance of the match or indeed the series. Here, encapsulated in the heroic bowling of Flintoff, the rediscovered class of Kallis, the calm resistance of Ashwell Prince and the frayed tempers of the rest of the cast was the very reason for watching the damn game. Twenty20 cricket may be the toast of the moment, but when Test cricket provides an hour such as this, its survival as the pinnacle of the game should never be in doubt.

When the umpires finally called a halt to proceedings, as the light closed in and tempers began to flare, South Africa’s lead was 25 and, in Prince and Mark Boucher, they had two redoubtable characters who needed all their toughness and skill, and not a little luck, to get through to the end unscathed. Whether Flintoff can recreate the passion and intensity of the second evening, how far Boucher and Prince can stretch South Africa’s lead and whether England’s under-pressure batsmen can find some form second time around will determine the outcome of the match.

That the result is still in doubt is solely down to Flintoff. At 5.23pm, after a heavy shower and then drizzle had forced the players from the field for an hour, the scoreboard showed that South Africa were 205 for four. The deficit was 26 and, in Kallis (48 not out) and Prince (24 not out), South Africa had two batsmen who were set, as if in concrete, and ready to plunder a sizeable first-innings lead. England needed an inspirational figure to step forward if the series was not to slip away.

Inevitably, that man was Flintoff. He had already bowled 18 overs in the day, a little more than a third of England’s total, and initially he might have thought that the gods were against him, since the third umpire had turned down what to this eye looked a good claim for a catch at slip by Andrew Strauss and then Paul Collingwood had spilt a dolly off his bowling at second slip, both chances off Neil McKenzie. But eventually McKenzie had fallen leg-before to give Flintoff his 200th wicket in Tests. He might then have thought that was to be the high point of the day.

He must have been tired, but cricketers such as Flintoff sense the moment and the mood of the game and the needs of their team. England, and Michael Vaughan, needed him now. He called for the ball immediately after the break and began to charge in as if his very life depended upon it. Kallis has often been an immovable object for South Africa and as these two great all-rounders – England’s best bowler and South Africa’s best batsman, to boot – went toe-to-toe it was immediately obvious that the momentum of the day depended upon its outcome.

Flintoff began by softening up Kallis with a variety of short, nasty bouncers, some which passed over Kallis’s shoulder, others in front of his nose. These were rapid missiles, but Kallis never looked anything other than secure, standing firm, staring into space in between balls and doing his utmost to keep his heartbeat down and mind alert. He didn’t exactly look as if he was enjoying himself, but here was a man not afraid of a contest; confident in a technique honed through hours of lonely practice.

It was only when Flintoff tested out the other end of the pitch that Kallis began to doubt himself. England believe that Kallis is vulnerable to an early yorker. Now he also had gloomy light and an inadequate sightscreen – over which Flintoff’s arm was releasing missile after furious missile – with which to contend.

Flintoff was convinced that he had Kallis leg-before with one such, standing mid-pitch and appealing until the last drop of breath had been squeezed from his body, the veins in his neck standing out like tree roots at the base of a great oak. It was difficult to know what the ball was missing, other than off stump and leg stump, as it crashed into Kallis’s toe, and thereafter Flintoff went dangerously close to overstepping the mark with his constant questioning of the sanity of Alim Dar, the umpire.

He was not to be denied, though. The very next over, still burning with injustice at Dar’s denial, he flattened Kallis’s off stump with a rip-snorting, late-swinging yorker that Kallis jabbed down on, but missed by a distance. Flintoff stood mid-pitch, arms raised like some conquering Viking while his team-mates mobbed him. The immovable object had come face to face with an irresistible force and, for once, Kallis had to give way.

De Villiers, a bright young thing but not yet battle hardened, fell hooking.  Boucher, itching for the fight, survived two yorkers that he plainly did not see and a whole heap of English tongue-wagging. For the second time in the match – the first was when Flintoff was batting – the crowd had come alive. Some cricketers can just do it and Flintoff is one of that rare breed. Since Headingley, his comeback has been a bit of a damp squib, but this was Flintoff-inspired electricity. The man is back. The Times, 1 August 2008