England take the honours ahead of the final
England 199 for 6 (Vaughan 83, Flintoff 54) beat South Africa 198 for 9 (Anderson 4 for 38) by 4 wickets
First blood: Makhaya Ntini celebrates the early fall of Vikram Solanki
England scored several psychological points ahead of Saturday's NatWest Series final with a convincing victory over South Africa under the lights at Edgbaston with 11 overs to spare. England bowled well and fielded brilliantly, and apart from an early-innings wobble, batted with conviction too. The Man of the Match Andrew Flintoff hammered 54 in just 40 balls, while Michael Vaughan returned to form with a vengeance, cracking 83 - surprisingly, his highest score in ODIs - with 15 dreamy fours.
There was also a fine comeback from James Anderson. His first over of the match disappeared for 19, including four clunking fours from Graeme Smith, but Anderson hit back later with three wickets in nine balls and finished with 4 for 38. And England's catching was superb, with an acrobatic one-handed grab from Flintoff the highlight.
The batting was a different story at first. After Marcus Trescothick collected two fours in Shaun Pollock's first over - one fine back-foot crunch, one rather more involuntary edge - Vikram Solanki skyed Makhaya Ntini vertically on the leg side. The score was still 11 when Trescothick edged Pollock to Andrew Hall at first slip. Then, just after Anthony McGrath creamed a glorious four through the covers off Ntini, he was beaten by Jacques Kallis's first ball, which straightened a touch (30 for 3).
But Flintoff came in, and smashed his first ball for four. Vaughan followed suit, as Kallis (6-0-43-1) proved expensive after his dream start. Vaughan timed the ball well from the start, with a sumptuous cover-drive off Paul Adams arguably his best shot of the night. Flintoff was in typically pugnacious form, smashing Kallis for a big six over midwicket, and clattering Andre Nel to the long-off boundary to spark an exchange of views. Flintoff reached his half-century from only 36 balls in the 25th over, but then swatted Ntini to long leg the ball after bringing up the hundred partnership (130 for 4).
Rikki Clarke, with only 27 ODI runs under his belt before the match, clouted Nel for 14 in an over, including a pulled six which narrowly eluded Ntini on the midwicket boundary. It set him on his way: Clarke's violent sweep off Adams brought up the 50 partnership with Vaughan in only 52 balls, by which time the match was as good as over. With five needed Vaughan padded up to Hall and departed lbw, then Clarke swung at Adams and missed with one required. The winning run turned out to be a wide from Hall, and England won with a whacking 66 balls to spare.
South Africa lost Nicky Boje when he went over on his ankle while fielding a quick single in the covers. He was whisked off to hospital for X-rays amid fears that he might have suffered severe ligament damage, or even a break. The unlucky Boje had only just come on as substitute for Martin van Jaarsveld, who had a groin injury.
Earlier South Africa rocketed out of the traps after winning the toss, passing 55 by the end of the 10th over, wobbled worryingly in mid-innings, then recovered to reach 198.
The England fielding was top-class. Herschelle Gibbs wafted Darren Gough firm-footedly to the leaping Clarke in the covers (28 for 1), then Smith, after sprinting to 45 from only 38 balls, latched on to a short one in Flintoff's first over. He pulled it powerfully and expected his 10th four, only to see McGrath at square leg stick out a hand and pull off a juggling act that ended with the ball stuck between his thighs (65 for 2).
Only two runs later the dangerous Kallis followed. He thick-edged a drive at Richard Johnson, Flintoff dived to his right at third slip ... and the ball stuck in his right hand as he completed a semi-cartwheel (67 for 3). It halved Kallis's average for this NatWest Series to a mere 164.50.
After Hall departed lbw for 3 (74 for 4), Trescothick got in on the catching act. Mark Boucher had lasted long enough to crack a square boundary to bring up his 2000 runs in ODIs, but shortly after that he edged Anderson, and Trescothick plunged to his right to grasp a good low chance (99 for 5).
Gibbs fails again: Darren Gough celebrates England's first wicket
Anderson struck again in his next over, when Jacques Rudolph played a half-cock drive and was caught by McGrath - more conventionally this time - in the covers for 13 (104 for 6). And Anderson got full revenge for that costly first over with the wicket of Shaun Pollock third ball, courtesy of yet another sharp catch by Flintoff at second slip.
At 104 for 7 in the 25th over another early night for England beckoned, but van Jaarsveld and Adams dug in, for a sensible stand that eventually realised 71. England lost the initiative - and Johnson too, with what appeared to be a recurrence of his troublesome groin injury. McGrath, pressed into service as an emergency bowler, eventually broke the nurdling-nudging stand, when van Jaarsveld played across a straight one after grafting to his highest ODI score of 45 in 69 balls (175 for 8).
Nel didn't last long - another catch for Flintoff at slip (177 for 9) - but Adams and Ntini saw out the 50 overs. Adams flayed Gough to long-on for four, and Ntini joined in by clipping a textbook shot to the midwicket boundary.
The total was more than seemed likely at halfway, and when England wobbled a packed house at Edgbaston briefly feared the worst. But Vaughan oozed class, Flintoff wielded his mighty club, Clarke showed what all the fuss was about ... and England took that oh-so-important psychological advantage into the final at Lord's.
Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.
Click here for the Wisden Verdict