| The South African skipper felt Flintoff made the final difference
London: After the first Test the England captain resigned unexpectedly, looking close to tears. After the second, frontline bowler Darren Gough called it a day.
After the fourth Michael Vaughan, the new leader, complained that the country produced soft and fearful players. By the final Test, the crowd had started heckling their own team.
Quite how England re-invented themselves over the next four days to win the game and level the series at 2-2 on Monday against the world’s second-ranked team remains a mystery, even to Vaughan.
South Africa, oozing confidence, had eased to 345 for two late on the first day at The Oval, prompting the booing. “I thought we were pretty doomed,” Vaughan conceded.
By the final day England, playing world-class cricket, had won by nine wickets in front of a delirious, disbelieving crowd.
South Africa captain Graeme Smith, so keen on guiding his side to a first series win in England since 1965, summed it up by saying: “It was a topsy-turvy series. Neither side gave an inch.”
In truth, England gave their opponents more than a mile from day one. The South Africans opened hostilities on July 24 with a tone-setting 398 for one.
Smith made 277 in that innings before the rain came to England’s aid. Match drawn. Nasser Hussain, however, knew the score and resigned.
There was to be no such escape at Lord’s, where paceman Makhaya Ntini laid waste to the home batting before Smith chipped in with another 259 runs on the way to an innings and 92-run win.Flintoff’s devil-may-care 142 off 146 balls provided no more than an amusing footnote.
England’s luck changed on a Trent Bridge cabbage patch. By winning the toss, they as good as won the game.
Hussain and Mark Butcher both scored centuries on the opening day before the track deteriorated to such an extent that only one man got beyond 30 in the last two innings.
An angry Smith pointed his finger at the pitch and he had other reasons to feel hard done by.
Jacques Kallis, the world’s leading allrounder, had missed the first two Tests. Gary Kirsten, the batting mainstay, missed the third and Shaun Pollock, to many the key difference between the sides, was to miss the fourth at Headingley.
England, however, failed to exploit his absence despite repeatedly getting into winning positions, with South Africa at 21 for four and 142 for seven on the opening day.
The reason for that failure became glaringly obvious. England’s quick bowlers, barring Flintoff, could not have hit the pavilion from ten paces, let alone a set of stumps from 22 yards.
South Africa’s last three wickets added 200 in the first innings at Headingley and a further 133 in the second. Smith announced his side expected to win the series 3-1.
Vaughan, his captaincy honeymoon over before it had begun and struggling to score a run, blamed everything from county cricket, to too many matches, to some mysterious, very English “fear factor”.
Coach Duncan Fletcher, with much more justification, blamed a bowling attack boasting just eight caps going into the match.
Two weeks later, England, minus Hussain and his broken toe, came back from the jaws of defeat to win at The Oval.
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Or was it, most spectacular of all, Flintoff’s 95 in a 99-run stand with Harmison to which the tail-ender contributed just three' “Freddy took the game away from us,” Smith said.
The answer, it seems, is that the entire England team began playing out of their skins at the same time, just as they had performed without spines two weeks before.
Smith seemed as bemused as anybody. He agreed that while his side had been consistently good, England’s level of performance had yo-yoed until the fifth and final Test. “That’s probably true,” he said. “I don’t think we choked. England are allowed to play good cricket. They put us under extreme pressure.”