Flintoff's belligerence pays

G. VISWANATH

Alec Stewart with a valuable 83 proved that he is an invaluable asset to his side.-N. SRIDHARAN

ANDREW Flintoff and England drew first blood in the NatWest Trophy III tri-series at Trent Bridge. There were quite a few handy players for England who can claim to have played their part in giving a winning start to their team. Notable among this small band was Alec Stewart, who must not be offended at being called the 'grand dad of English cricket of the 21st Century.' David Graveney and company, and that includes captain Nasser Hussain, did not see anything wrong in placing trust on a 39-year-old veteran for yet another summer. They see Stewart as an invaluable asset.

Then there was Rohinton Irani, whose height of 6 ft. 3 in, might be of some relevance to the game. The selectors recalled him after five years because he was the batsman in form in the County circuit. His only claim to fame was taking the wicket of India's captain Mohammed Azharuddin in the fifth ball of his first Test for England. Irani's selection was not greeted with blowing bugles and beating drums. Instead there was plenty of opposition and catcalls. Critics, used to seeing the bold measures of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been crying hoarse from roof tops to provide a first opportunity for Ian Bell, who was in India two winters ago as captain of the England 'A' team and played against teams led by Ajay Ratra. Bell is still waiting in the wings.

But Irani, well into his 31st year, justified his selection making a useful 39 in a partnership of 95 for the fifth wicket with Stewart. Thereafter when Sri Lanka set about the chase of a massive total of 293, he approached the bowling crease like a fast bowler and delivered ten tidy overs at a cost of 3.9 an over. It was a splendid effort. Stewart and Irani were the first England players who did the rescue act in a way fire fighters douse flames to save lives and salvage valuable material. Stewart built the England innings in a manner of saying 'brick by brick,' an effort that took him one and three quarters of an hour.

Man of the Match Andrew Flintoff gave a perfect demonstration of slog- over aggression with a quickfire 50.-N. SRIDHARAN

Stewart must have been delighted that playing in his 50th international for England on home soil he was able to do something concrete. He saw the departure of Irani, swinging part time off spinner, Russel Arnold into the hands of Mahela Jayawardene close to the line at deep mid wicket. Irani exited from the scene with England's total at 199. There was due celebration as Sri Lanka's top batsman in the English summer, Jayawardene took the catch coming down at his throat. The Sri Lankans felt they had got their toes back into the game. But what they needed was several helping hands to take a stranglehold on the match.

Their bowlers struck twice before the 20th over. The left arm seam of Chaminda Vaas and Nuwan Zoysa made initial breakthroughs, though it must be said that Marcus Trescothick gifted his wicket. There was a contest between the fielder, Kumara Sangakkara and the ball that went up in the air of the edge of Trescothick's bat. Sangakkara somehow managed to get under the ball at deep point and held it. With England at 47 for two, the Sri Lankans were clapping and grinning. After Hussain and Graham Thorpe put on the first half century stand of this summer's NatWest, the Sri Lankans got better, medium fast bowler Dilhara Fernando removing the England captain and the third left hander in the top four from the middle.

Collingwood throws up his arms in joy after getting rid of Mahela Jayawardene.-N. SRIDHARAN

It was now that Sri Lanka and Sanath Jayasuriya missed the services of off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. Leg spinner Upul Chandana's 83 wickets at 31.96 from 86 one-day internationals suggest that he has been a utility bowler right from the time Arjuna Ranatunga was at the helm. He bowled 10 overs and conceded 43 runs, most of it when Stewart and Irani forged the near hundred fifth-wicket stand. Sri Lanka had only three useful bowlers in Vaas, Zoysa and Fernando. The three spinners were punished. They conceded 135 runs in 26 overs. This was the reason England recovered from 47 for two and 199 for five, with Flintoff giving a perfect demonstration of slog over aggression. There have been instances of Flintoff going hell for leather as was the case once in Karachi against Pakistan when England chased a 300 plus total and won the match, the late evening dew really making matters worse for the Pakistan bowlers then. Recently, in Mumbai, the 23-year-old scored substantial runs and picked up three wickets to win the sixth and last one-day international for England.

At Trent Bridge he seized the opportunity, hammered the Sri Lankan attack, the result of which was the fastest 50 by an England batsman in limited over internationals. It was one of those instances of a batsman cutting loose to completely unsettle a bowling attack. Flintoff's dare devil feat that produced 50 runs off 28 balls in 38 minutes with two fours and five sixes lifted England from the five plus average to close to six an over.

In the end England made 293 for six wickets, three more than Zimbabwe's NatWest Trophy high of 290 at Chester-le-street in the inaugural year of the championship in 2000. Hardpressed as they were, Sri Lanka reeling under the onslaught of Flintoff's belligerent effort, could not rise up to the task that demanded of it to proceed at a pace that any stage of the chase could not have dropped under five an over. Three excellent catches by skipper Hussain, Thorpe and Irani made Sri Lanka's journey into the 50th over a meaningless one. Romesh Kaluwitharana made a half century (52 off 64 balls with one six and five fours). Marvan Atapattu fell three short of his half century. Three other batsmen departed before getting into their 30s. The Sri Lankan effort was simply not good enough to beat England. It lost by 44 runs.

Marvan Atapattu goes, caught by Irani off Flintoff. The bowler bagged three wickets for 48.-N. SRIDHARAN

The scores:

England: M. Trescothick c Sangakkara b Vaas 26; N. Knight lbw b Zoysa 20; N. Hussain b Fernando 32; G. Thorpe b Fernando 18; A. Stewart b Vaas 83; R. Irani c Jayawardene b Arnold 39; A. Flintoff (not out) 50; P. Collingwood (not out) 10; Extras (b-4, lb-4, nb-4, w-3) 15. Total (for six wkts. in 50 overs) 293.

Fall of wkts: 1-39, 2-47, 3-103, 4-104, 5-199, 6-281.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 9-0-58-2, Zoysa 7-0-46-1, Fernando 8-0-46-2, Chandana 10-0-43-0, Jayasuriya 10-0-51-0, Arnold 6-0-41-1.

Sri Lanka: S. Jayasuriya c Hussain b Hoggard 12; R. Kaluwitharana c Thorpe b Collingwood 52; M. Atapattu c Irani b Flintoff 47; M. Jayawardene b Collingwood 29; R. Arnold (run out) 29; K. Sangakkara c Kirtley b Flintoff 22; U. Chandana c Thorpe b Flintoff 1; N. Nawaz (not out) 15; C. Vaas b Kirtley 10; N. Zoysa b Kirtley 0; D. Fernando (not out) 4; Extras (b-1, lb-11, nb-6, w-10) 28. Total (for nine wkts. in 50 overs) 249.

Fall of wkts: 1-19, 2-91, 3-149, 4-152, 5-214, 6-215, 7-215, 8-238, 9-238.

England bowling: Hoggard 10-0-49-1, Kirtley 10-0-40-2, Irani 10-0-39-0, Flintoff 10-0-48-3, Giles 5-0-30-0, Collingwood 5-0-31-2.

A class player

JUST as it beat Sri Lanka by a handsome margin of 44 runs at Trent Bridge, England will win many one-day internationals. And just as Andrew Flintoff scored a hefty undefeated 50 and took a bagful of wickets, he will repeat this feat several times in the years to come to become the leading light of England cricket and win many more 'Man of the Match' awards. Flintoff's majestic show reminded the partisan supporters, the rival teams and the general followers of the game that here is a class player from England who has the capacity to score runs briskly, take wickets at regular intervals and hold catches to keep the attention rivetting on him. Since the last winter, when he was asked to rush to India as a replacement for the injured Craig White, Flintoff's performance has improved by leaps and bounds. It may be premature to compare him with someone like Ian Botham.

Flintoff has a long way to go and thousands of runs to score and hundreds of wickets to take before he is bracketed with one of the greatest allrounders the game witnessed in the 70s and 80s. In fact his personal 'facts and figures' are convincing in the least to suggest that he has a bright future. Before the match against Sri Lanka he had played 39 internationals and scored 656 at an average of 21.86. As a bowler he had a collection of 27 wickets at 29.29. Even a schoolboy may not be impressed by these figures, but the pundits are willing to give him a little more time to develop into a full fledged allrounder. They feel he will not let down. Like South Africa's Lance Klusener, who rarely got opportunities to bat higher up or even in the middle order, but deserved a promotion when the late Hansie Cronje was the captain, there is a case for Flintoff to be sent above the likes of Ronnie Irani at least.

The longer he stays in the wicket, the better chances of England profiting from his presence. He provides the electrifying effect really. It is often players like Flintoff who get the home supporters swing into action. In the match against Sri Lanka, Flintoff, was a class act. His big effort with the bat in a short time followed by a three -wicket spell was just the kind of performance Nasser Hussain might have expected from him. Flintoff did just that.