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September 7, 2003
Graeme Smith: still smiling ... just.
If English cricket fans (or Bangladeshis, for that matter) think that they've got it bad, then spare a thought for the poor beleaguered South Africans. It is one thing to poke your head above the parapet of mediocrity every once in a while. It is another thing entirely to have your loftiest ambitions quashed, time and time again.
There is nothing set in stone about this match. With Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher united at the crease, South Africa have every right to expect another 100 runs tomorrow morning, and if the weather forecast is to be believed, a lead of 170 would probably ensure their survival. But, all things being equal, England ought to wrap up victory tomorrow afternoon, and so deprive South Africa of their first series victory in England since readmission.
After that capitulation in the fourth Test at Headingley, and Herschelle Gibbs' rampage on the first day here, an England victory would be a jaw-dropping achievement. But the implications would be felt far more keenly in the South African camp than at home. As in 1994 and 1998, South Africa are in danger of being denied the spoils of a series that appeared to have been in their pockets. Throw in their traumatic record in World Cups, and that perpetual inability to overcome Australia, and even Graeme Smith would be hard-pressed to think positive on the journey home.
England will not be thinking triumphant thoughts just yet - anything Andrew Flintoff can do with a tailender for company, Pollock, Boucher, and Andrew Hall are more than capable of emulating. The difference, however, is one of momentum. England have enjoyed two days of near-relentless dominance, and the variety and voracity of their bowling today was as far-removed from their limp first-innings performance as can be imagined.
For the first time this series, England bowled to a definitive plan - no-one more so than the magnificent Martin Bicknell, who knows the vagaries of the Oval pitch like no-one else in the world. His peerless spell of swing bowling was capped by a wonderful sleight of hand to dupe Jacques Rudolph, and it was a performance that drew heroics from his team-mates. Steve Harmison was particularly impressive. As strike bowlers go, he specialises in the jab rather than the knockout blow, but his left-right combination to extract Gary Kirsten and Jacques Kallis was the pivotal moment of the afternoon session.
But all the isotonic power drinks will be on one man tonight. It has been five long years since Flintoff was singled out as a special talent, when at the age of 20, he was thrown into Test cricket against the 1998 South Africans. He struggled then, and for many years afterwards, but that faith is now being justified in spades. His innings today carried him past 400 runs for the series, where he had previously managed 643 in 21 matches.
If England pull off their series-levelling win tomorrow, it will be the crowning achievement of Flintoff's career to date. He has truly come of age this summer.
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