The Flintoff factor revives England
Flintoff and England awoke to caustic headlines in the national press, and rightly so, given the abject nature of Wednesday's batting effort. Their first-innings total of 231 was at least 200 runs below par after winning a crucial toss, and by the time South Africa had chiselled their way to near-parity with six wickets still standing, their hopes in the series were receding with every passing minute. But in England's hour of need, up stepped Flintoff, with a spell that might not have propelled them back into the ascendancy just yet, but has without doubt transformed the dynamics of this match.
"It was an important hour for us, wasn't it," said Flintoff. "We'd scrapped all day, but we needed to get wickets to get back in the game. It means a lot to us, getting back into the series, and doing well for England, and we'd not scored enough in the first innings. A lot of hard work was needed, which meant everyone getting involved and making an impression. I think we've done that today."
Flintoff's close-of-play figures of 4 for 68 are already his best in Test cricket since his annus mirablis of 2005, with the promise of more to come when play resumes on Friday morning. But it was a measure of his magnificence that he could and should have reaped even greater rewards. Having struck with his second ball of the match to remove Graeme Smith, Flintoff needed three attempts to see off Neil McKenzie - after a drop from Paul Collingwood and a reprieve-by-referral after Andrew Strauss's low catch at slip - before Aleem Dar delivered the not-out verdict that lit a furnace of indignation within the most mild-mannered of strike bowlers.
Incredulity, closely followed by incandescence, was Flintoff's reaction when Jacques Kallis, on 55, was struck flush on the toe, plumb in front of middle stump, and with the bat not even close to the action. He appealed, then pleaded, then demanded, and at the end of the over, could still be heard giving Dar an earful as the pair moved to their positions at square leg.
Flintoff's reaction was entirely out of character, and he quickly apologised at the close, but as Kallis would testify, he backed up his furious words with even more livid deeds. "My emotion was running quite high," said Flintoff, "but you can chunter as much as you want, you've just got to get on with it. When you're bowling to one of the best players in the world, and Kallis is right up there, it brings the best out of you. It was probably one of my better overs."
Flintoff has always been a master of understatement, but he can only really judge the value of his onslaught at the end of the South African innings, when the final four wickets have been picked off and the true balance of power has been laid bare. But, with memories of past South Africa-England confrontations thick in the air, in particular the Donald-Atherton clash at Trent Bridge in 1998, it was left to the vanquished batsman, Kallis, to assess the true worth of Flintoff's spell.
"Any time you get good battles in Test cricket it's good for the game," he said. "People say that with Twenty20 around Test cricket is going to die, but I don't think it's anywhere near dying. People are still coming to watch it and you get exciting afternoons like that, what more do you want?
"He bowled a fantastic spell and it brought England back into the game," said Kallis. "There's still a bit in the wicket and he got it in the area more often than not, which made life tough for our batters. It's not the first time we've faced a spell like that, but when a bowler bowls a spell of world-class quality, you've just got to try and work through it, and fight and hang in there."
Kallis was unable to tough it through, as his off stump was detonated by a perfectly pitched outswinging yorker, but when AB de Villiers fell three overs later to a loose pull to fine leg, a bristling Mark Boucher arrived to shepherd South Africa to the close with Ashwell Prince solid on 37 not out at the other end. There were plenty sharp words exchanged in the dying moments, however, particularly after Boucher lost sight of another yorker that fizzed past his off stump.
The light, as Kallis said, was not the issue. More of a problem was Flintoff's height, which allowed his stream of full-length deliveries to burst unnoticed out of the darkened windows of the committee room above the sight-screen. Kallis admitted he did not see the ball that ought to have claimed him lbw, and had little idea of the "good nut" that eventually did for him, but added that he hoped that "common sense would prevail" and that the umpires would ask for a sheet to cover the offending gap. Morne Morkel, who will have watched the drama with interest, might not take too kindly to that sort of suggestion.
Regardless of Flintoff's efforts, Kallis remained confident of South Africa's position at the end of the second day, and with Boucher already primed for the sort of scrap that his career has been built around, England also know how much can be won and lost in the first hour on Friday. But for now they are happy merely to be back in contention. After the drubbing at Headingley and their batting embarrassment, pride - however temporarily - has been restored.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo