England's commendable fighting spirit

ENGLAND have a new hero and a fighting spirit. If they can find the right bowlers in the next nine months there is a chance, just a tiny chance, that their ultimate goal, the return of the Ashes will be realised.

TED CORBETT

The skippers, Graeme Smith and Michael Vaughan, jointly hold the npower trophy. — Pic. CLIVE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES-

ENGLAND have a new hero and a fighting spirit. If they can find the right bowlers in the next nine months there is a chance, just a tiny chance, that their ultimate goal, the return of the Ashes will be realised.

All this was clear as they beat South Africa at The Oval and drew a series against the second best side in the world 2-2.

Of course, there are many other imponderables to be ironed out during the winter tours of Bangladesh, a weak country, Sri Lanka, a hospitable place to play your cricket and West Indies where Brian Lara is leading a bunch of youngsters back towards their rightful place in the world rankings.

The joyful farewell to Alec Stewart may be followed by tears. Three or four young `keepers are vying for his place: Chris Read of Nottinghamshire, the favourite, a fine `keeper but a trifle too fancy a strokemaker; Geraint Jones of Kent, the better batsman with a toughness learned during his early years in Australia, but not as adept behind the stumps; James Foster of Essex, who is a far better `keeper and a braver batsman than the apprentice who toured India two years ago. Others lurk in the background too and before England settle on Stewart's successor permanently there are bound to be moments of doubt and recriminations.

As for the bowling there are headaches on the horizon.

Alec Stewart, who has retired after an illustrious career, is chaired by Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff. — Pic. CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES-

James Anderson, a quick swinger of 21, needs a rest; Steve Harmison, a giant in body and heart must add an Ambrose consistency to his line and length if he is to turn his natural gifts into world-beating statistics; Andrew Flintoff confesses that he needs to learn to take wickets more often; and, frankly, the rest need to learn to remain fit.

Perhaps they require more detailed management, perhaps it is a simple matter of teaching them to conserve their physical strength or more likely it is necessary to say to some of them that a desperate dive to save a four is not worth the effort if, as we saw in the case of Simon Jones in Australia, it puts you out of cricket for a year.

There is plenty of fast bowling talent in this country but too many spend too much time with their physios; and you can look for spinners but you will not find one who fits the bill completely, much less discover two or three.

Those who can bowl are unable to bat or field adequately; and there is no-one even in the distance who can be expected to become a Shane Warne, an Anil Kumble, or even a Paul Adams.

But at least there is a base from which to build. A mighty big base whose name is Freddie Flintoff, whose character has grown from diffident young all-rounder to superstar in the last couple of months and whose love affair with the English crowds can only lead to a rise and rise of this England team.

England's batting heroes, Graham Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick. Thorpe scored a century in his comeback Test, while Trescothick powered on to a double hundred. Flintoff piled on the agony for South Africa with a quickfire 95. — Pic. CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES-

I suspect that Duncan Fletcher, the coach, is behind Flintoff's change in fortunes. He has learnt discretion, which ball to whack and which ball to pat back to the bowler. He has discovered that you don't have to try to hit five out of six balls into the crowd; once an over is quite enough.

He has even learnt a little on-field gamesmanship. It was interesting to hear Richie Benaud speak approvingly of Flintoff's decision to drop the ball at his feet and leave it for a South African to pick up.

This gesture infuriated the South African captain Graeme Smith who launched a broadside of verbal abuse at Flintoff. The big man grinned slowly. His point had been made; and I mark that moment down as the one at which the South African morale began to crack.

The match is easily summarised. South Africa won the toss and were heading for a score above 600 when Herschelle Gibbs, who had batted brilliantly, threw his wicket away. Neil McKenzie was caught off the last ball of the first day and at that instant Michael Vaughan, the new England captain, had a vision of what might be possible.

Andrew Flintoff. — Pic. CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES-

"I saw they were not going to achieve their par score," he said and it dawned on him that, like Sri Lanka in 1998, England might concede a big first innings score and still go on to win.

South Africa finished on 484 and England lost Vaughan and Mark Butcher for 78; at that point enter Graham Thorpe to play with all his old mastery, to make 124 and to set Marcus Trescothick on the way to 219, most of it on a warm September Saturday when a shirt-sleeved crowd sat back and watched an England team head back towards great days of a quarter of a century ago.

By close of play on the third day England were just in the lead and everything depended on Flintoff bashing his way to perhaps 60 or 70 with the tail.

Even before Martin Bicknell was out in the first over of day four there was a feeling that we had dreamed a dream too many; the rest of the morning abolished forever any doubt that Flintoff had taken a step into a new dimension.

In the next 90 minutes he hit four sixes, some so big that they frightened fellow players on their balcony, spectators at the back of the terraces and commentators in their sound proof boxes. Best of all, he applied his strength sparingly until, having hit six to go from 89 to 95, he essayed a blow intended to take him to 100 in a single mighty heave and was bowled by Adams, a bowler no-one should underestimate.

Herschelle Gibbs (left) with a cracking 183, added 227 for the second wicket in the first innings. — Pic. CLIVE MASON-

His innings, and stout defence from Harmison, meant South Africa needed 120 before they could start counting and by the time they reached that score their top five batsmen had gone and their defeat was all but accomplished.

The final day was a formality although the discipline with which England bowled and the efficiency with which they despatched the last four batsmen was a miracle to those of us used to a hiccup or two on the way to England victories.

Trescothick, who looks at present as if he might bat with a single stump and still make plenty of runs, guided England home with 69 to increase his match total to 288. He needed to bat well this series since Vaughan has had other matters on his mind; not least the unexpected burden of captaincy.

To his credit Vaughan remained stable, calm and collected throughout all the toils and troubles and earned the praise of the old professionals in his dressing room. "He bears himself like a captain," said Stewart drawing on wisdom from 133 Tests; you cannot ask greater praise than that.

Gary Kirsten scored 90 in the first innings. — Pic. MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES-

What of the South Africans? Frankly, they choked and in particular their captain choked. His face changed when Flintoff was batting, his outburst proved he had been affected by those hammer blows and his failure to make another fifty after two double hundreds at the start of the series showed he has a serious flaw.

He is a young man making his way in the game and for all the talk of his maturity, for all his widely publicised wish to meet Mike Brearley and for all his willingness to do his job in every aspect, he still has a lot to learn.

Smith will learn; have no doubt about that. I wonder though if the impatient men who govern South African cricket will have the will power to wait. They desperately want to top Australia which was why there was all the hot-headed talk of beating England 3-1 and why so many of their camp followers were upset as it became clear that England would win at The Oval.

Victories at Lord's and Headingley — how England must rue those golden opportunities thrown away at Leeds — convinced some of South Africa's large gathering of supporters (both inside the Press box and in the stands) that they had the makings of a great side, that they were a step from world conquest.

Team-mates rush to congratulate a jubilant Shaun Pollock, who has just picked up his 300th Test wicket. Pollock's victim was Michael Vaughan in the first innings. — Pic. PAUL GILHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

Ten years ago I remember asking a shrewd judge how it was they had achieved so much in a series against Australia so soon after their return to the world cricket stage. "They out-toughed the Aussies; it's as simple as that," he said.

Somehow, somewhere, that tough streak has been lost and now it will have to be rediscovered if their dream of beating Australia is to be realised.

England simply need to find the right players to achieve their wish to find the Holy Grail otherwise known as the Ashes.