Flintoff turns up a crock of gold
Lancashire 229 for 4 (Prince 68, Buttler 55) beat Worcestershire 179 for 7 (Mitchell 46, Oliver 44, Flintoff 2-36) by 50 runs
On a glorious afternoon by the Severn, Andrew Flintoff pulled off a comeback that cricket never expected to see. Nearly five years after he succumbed to injury and played his last professional match, after nearly five years largely spent in TV adventuring and other forms of celebrity, he conquered a supposedly terminal knee injury and, however briefly, took to the field again.
Lancashire even celebrated with a team batting record and a victory to go top of the table.
The crock had turned up a crock of gold.
The clash of the top two teams in the North Division was always likely to be a crowd puller, with or without the presence of Flintoff. Nonetheless, his return to competitive cricket probably left a few at New Road wanting, particularly if they had been anticipating an explosive exhibition of big-hitting from the former England all-rounder.
In the event, they did not see face a single delivery, his ability to strike a cricket ball a very long way not required as Lancashire's established top-order made short work of some rather ordinary bowling to run up their record total since the short format was introduced.
Flintoff's presence may have reminded a few of them that the previous record of 220 for 5, set at Derby in 2009, had been largely down to him, with an individual innings of 93 from 41 balls. That match, in fact, would prove to be his last for Lancashire in T20 before injury forced him out of the game.
This time he had to bite back his frustration as Ashwell Prince with 68 from 43 deliveries, and Jos Buttler (55 off 28) built on the flying start provided by Tom Smith's 30 from 20 balls to set Worcestershire a daunting task, left to fidget in the Lancashire dug-out, ready to come in at six down, not even strapping on his pads until the 19th over.
But if there was a measure of frustration, therefore, for the 36-year-old, who looked in good physical shape, there was satisfaction later in the shape of two wickets from four improving overs with the ball as Worcestershire's efforts were stifled and Lancashire moved into the lead in the North Group with three matches to go.
Lancashire had been 61 for 1 after the Powerplay overs, but finished the innings even more impressively, adding 102 from the final seven overs as Buttler struck the ball cleanly and with power, hitting three towering sixes.
In the event, the Lancashire's total worked in Flintoff's favour, creating almost the ideal circumstances for him to bowl, some five years after he last played competitive cricket, in the final Test of the 2009 Ashes series at The Oval.
Worcestershire made an encouraging start to their pursuit of the target, scoring 50 without loss from the opening five overs, but it meant Flintoff could ease himself back without the pressure he would have felt in a low scoring match.
His first ball almost brought a wicket, Richard Oliver giving the treatment to a wide long hop but living dangerously. Steven Croft flung himself full length at point, getting fingertips to the ball as Flintoff looked on in hope. In fact, the ball kept going and went for four, to be followed by a six that landed deep into the crowd at long-on as the left-handed Oliver, the former Shropshire captain who has been a hit in this format in his first season in the professional game, looked to take an aggressive approach.
Croft's achievement in making his 96th successive T20 appearance - an English record - was almost adorned by becoming part of the Flintoff story. Instead, it passed by almost unnoticed.
No more was seen of Flintoff until the 13th over, by which time a tall order had become taller still for the home side. Oliver and Daryl Mitchell had made a strong start but once they had both fallen to Croft's off-breaks, the required rate began to creep up and wickets were lost.
Needing to keep the runs flowing, by then to make up lost ground even, the 19-year-old Tom Kohler-Cadmore enjoyed a moment he will not forget, pulling his first ball from Flintoff over the mid-wicket boundary for six. Three balls later, though, he had become the first comeback wicket, bowled swinging extravagantly at a straight one.
Victory was essentially in the bag, with half of Worcestershire's wickets gone and the target a near-impossible 63 off four overs, when Flintoff returned for his third and fourth overs, which were much tidier than the first two and brought a second wicket when Alexei Kervezee holed out to long-on.
Flintoff was detained signing autographs afterwards but regrettably declined to connect with the wider public by speaking to the media, although he later tweeted his pleasure: "It's a bit like sex, always better 2nd time!".
Buttler, himself a little awestruck after keeping wicket to one of his boyhood heroes, offered a more measured, if less colourful appraisal.
"It was tough for him at the start, because they were always going to go hard with such a big total to chase and he needed a few balls to loosen up," Buttler said. "But he came back well in the last two overs and pushed one or two through.
"I had to pinch myself a bit, to think I was in the same team as such a legend of the game. I'll never forget watching the 2005 Ashes and the way he played there and to be in the same dressing room as him is a great experience."