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August 29, 2008
Andrew Flintoff starred with bat and ball, Ian Bell played arguably the most fluent one-day innings of his career and Samit Patel capped a sparky allround performance with a maiden five-wicket haul, as England's cricketers surged to an unassailable 3-0 series lead in Kevin Pietersen's first series as captain. With two games to come at Lord's and Cardiff, England could even climb to No. 2 in the world rankings if they maintain the same intensity that has left their South African opponents counting down the days until they can fly home to Johannesburg.
It was another crushingly professional performance from England. On Tuesday they bowled South Africa out for 83 at Trent Bridge en route to a ten-wicket win, and though the margin today was less emphatic, their impact was identical. Bell and Matt Prior signalled England's intent with a century stand in the first 15 overs of the innings, and though they did suffer a mid-innings wobble when four wickets fell for 38 in ten overs, Flintoff prevented any meltdown with a mature 78 not out from 77 balls.
England's total of 296 for 7 was arguably 20 runs short of their potential, but it never came close to being challenged. Without the drive and inspiration of Graeme Smith at the top of the order, South Africa were a flaky unit when their turn came to bat. Hashim Amla, playing in only his fourth ODI, top-scored with a battling 46, but the experienced pair of Herschelle Gibbs and Jacques Kallis mustered 21 runs between them, while AB de Villiers - the other remaining star of this one-day line-up - crassly ran himself out for 12 while taking on Steve Harmison's tracer-like arm at fine-leg.
At 82 for 4 in the 21st over, South Africa's challenge was effectively over, but Patel ensured that there would be no unlikely revival. Operating from the Vauxhall End with a tidy line and good variation, he nibbled away at the lower-middle order and tempted a variety of indiscretions. Mark Boucher made room for a cut but was beaten by the arm ball, Albie Morkel slammed two vast sixes in three balls before chipping a low return catch from the very next delivery, and Patel then corralled the tail with the minimum of fuss - tossing the ball up temptingly, he claimed the last three wickets for four runs in 13 balls, to become the first England spinner to take five wickets in a one-day innings since Ashley Giles in Delhi in 2001-02.
The excellence of England's team performances in the first two games had forced Patel to wait for his opportunity to take centre stage, but once it was given to him he did not disappoint. In addition to his wickets, he might have dismissed Gibbs with a squeakingly tight direct-hit shy that was turned down on referral, and he also sprinted 30-yards from mid-on to complete a cool catch over his shoulder as Kallis top-edged a pull off Flintoff. But arguably Patel's most crucial role of the day came with the bat, when he entered the fray for the first time, with England in a spot of bother on 182 for 5. Unperturbed, he pulled Morkel firmly through midwicket to register his first boundary in international cricket, and then spanked Makhaya Ntini gloriously on the up and through the covers, en route to 31 from 33 balls in a vital stand of 74 with Flintoff.
Flintoff's innings was cool, collected and undeniably brave. On 39, he was struck a fearsome blow over the right eye by Morkel, a blow that required treatment on the field as well as a spell in the dressing-room at the start of the South African innings. But he batted well within himself, grinding his way through the gears to finish unbeaten on 78 for the second innings in a row - his first back-to-back ODI fifties since 2004. When he went for his shots they came off handsomely, in particular a blasted six off Steyn that was dropped in the crowd at long-on, but he was equally happy to time the ball to the boundary, never better exemplified by a back-foot steer past point in the same Steyn over.
If one man epitomised South Africa's lack of belief it was Ntini, who endured a nightmarish day in the field. In his second over he lost his run-up completely, serving up consecutive no-balls - one of which was top-edged for four - before following up with an awful wide, delivered from level with the stumps. With the free hit carried over for a third delivery in a row, Prior opened his shoulders to clobber a length ball over long-on for six. Steyn was scarcely any more economical, drifting onto the pads with alarming regularity as Bell clipped him exquisitely through the leg side for three fours in two overs, as he hurtled to his half-century from 36 balls - his first ODI fifty at better than a run-a-ball.
Kallis, in a continuation of his peculiar form on this tour, once again proved to be South Africa's star with the ball. He didn't bring himself on until the 26th over, but then struck with his very first delivery as Owais Shah was beaten by a big offcutter and bowled off the inside-edge. He added a crucial second one over later when Kevin Pietersen hopped across his stumps to be pinned lbw for 5, and, with Bell already gone for 73, Paul Collingwood then became Johan Botha's second victim when he looped a leg-side catch off his pad and into the hands of Mark Boucher for 14.
That mini-collapse, however, was as troublesome as England's day would get. From Bell's early blitz to Patel's perfect denouement, everything else they attempted came off with spectacular success. As they shuffled off the field to the safety of the dressing-room, South Africa's defeated cricketers were left to wonder how they will ever get the better of the former countryman who is now captaining their opponents with such aplomb.
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