South Africa in England: Great Performances July 18, 2012

Nightwatchman? No thanks

With South Africa in trouble and Flintoff looking menacing at Headingley in 2008, it was a fine time for Ashwell Prince to find himself at the top of his game

Ashwell Prince has seldom been comfortable asking for help. He is even less comfortable receiving it. When assistance was offered at Headingley in 2008, he refused it flat out.

South Africa were 76 for 3 after having bowled England out for 203, and although the conditions were easing up, the opposition was not. One member of the England side in particular, making his comeback after 18 months out of the Test side, was troubling the South Africans a lot.

"Freddie Flintoff was back and he was bowling well," Prince remembered. "I was next in, but Mickey Arthur asked if I wanted the nightwatchman to go in instead. We had Paul Harris ready to go. I looked out and saw Freddie bowling the speed of light and I thought to myself that if I ask for a nightwatchman here - with due respect to him because he has done some great jobs for us in the past - but if he gets out, I will have to go in anyway and there's going to be more pressure on me. So I said, 'No, I don't want the nightwatchman.'"

Minutes after Prince's arrival at the crease, Hashim Amla drove a ball straight to Michael Vaughan in the covers. Luckily for South Africa, the catch was not given. "It happened metres away from me, and right away I wasn't sure, looking at it with the naked eye, if it was out," Prince said. "To this day I am still not sure." Earlier in the day AB de Villiers had thought he had caught Andrew Strauss at third slip, only to be told he had not taken it cleanly. "Both those incidents caused a lot of controversy, so there was all of that going on as well."

Prince and Amla made it through to the end of the day and by mid-morning on day two had put on 67 runs together. During the stand, Prince had "started to hit the ball well", but then Amla was trapped lbw for 38, and the unpleasantness from the fielding incidents resurfaced.

De Villiers was booed when he walked out to bat, and he said the crowd's reaction "hurt him quite a lot". It was up to Prince to keep the emotions in check and ensure South Africa did not lose any more wickets. "AB came in as normal - very positive," Prince said. "So I just tried to carry on playing my normal game, which was to be as steady as I could. AB was his fluent self and we ended up going along nicely."

The pitch, which Prince had been told would be a minefield for batsmen, was in reality far less threatening. "I had always heard that the Headingley pitch does a bit, especially if it's cloudy, so I went into the match having prepared for that. The pitch ended up playing better than I expected it to."

More than the surface, what helped Prince's confidence was that he was able to bat well against the toughest bowler of the day. "Freddie was bowling well but he was bowling wider to left-handers, which made it easier for me because I could leave a lot of balls. He was always at the right-handers and he seemed more dangerous to them. But I was okay. Because he was coming from a wide angle and he was so tall, I could leave a lot of balls on the bounce. I wasn't as bothered by him. He was the main threat and I was feeling comfortable against him, so that made me relax a lot more."

Flintoff ended up with just one wicket in the innings, but he helped create opportunities for James Anderson and Darren Pattinson, so Prince and de Villiers had to negate the threat of all three. With Prince's elegance and de Villiers' explosive power, South Africa were able to build a match-winning lead of 319.

For Prince, the performance meant more than just giving South Africa a 1-0 lead in a series they would go on to win. It was a personal high. "In that series, I got a hundred at Lord's the week before and then another century at Headingley, and I'd say that was the stage of my career when I was probably at the top of my game. After that there was the freakish broken thumb, but that's how it goes."

The series win for South Africa was their first in England since readmission. That victorious squad went on to beat Australia later that year and extended South Africa's unbeaten run away from home to six years. An injury ruled Prince out of the historic series in Australia, and he was replaced by JP Duminy, who had such a good run that Prince could not find a way back in.

Prince was eventually recalled against England in 2010 but was asked to open the batting, a position he was uncomfortable in. He was put back in the middle order, then dropped again last December, but since his contract was renewed in April, he is still in the national selectors' plans. Currently playing for Lancashire in the County Championship, Prince hopes to make another comeback for South Africa. "As long as I am still playing domestic cricket, I will make myself available for international cricket."

He will have to watch this series from the sidelines, but it's a position from where he can assess the strengths of the two teams. "With both teams, No. 1 to No. 11, there are individuals who can be match-winners. The only difference is that the South African batting line-up is more settled and established, especially up to No. 6. England seems to be a bit unsure there. They gave Jonny Bairstow a chance in the Test matches earlier in the summer and he will be disappointed with his performances. Now they have gone to someone more experienced in Ravi Bopara, so it will be interesting to see how he does in that position."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent