Flintoff casts shadow as England face South Africa

Published: Thursday, July 10, 2008, 14:46 [IST]
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England may well set a new record by fielding the same side for the sixth successive Test when they face South Africa in Thursday's series opener at Lord's. But with Andrew Flintoff set to return for the second match at Headingley their unchanged streak may be nearing its end.

And South Africa coach Mickey Arthur believes the star all-rounder's looming presence is something his side can utilise to their advantage.

Flintoff hasn't played a Test for over a year because of a combination of ankle and side injuries.

However, the pace bowler is nearing full fitness and, significantly, England - whose captain Michael Vaughan comes into this game under an injury cloud after a recurrence of a longstanding knee problem - have named a squad for the first of this four-match series only.

Initial indications were that an England pace bowler would be under the spotlight at Lord's.

But against South Africa's strong batting line-up, England may want to move to a five-man attack as soon as possible.

They could do that by dropping a batsman and middle-order duo Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood head to Lord's under pressure after managing a mere 77 runs in their combined last six innings during the series win over New Zealand.

"The 'Freddie' Flintoff factor lingers over England - because he's too good a player not to be picked," said Arthur. "If you've got a class performer, a fantastic cricketer like him available to you, I think you'd be silly not to select him.

"He's got to come back. Somebody will be unlucky. "Within the whole pressure cooker of Test cricket, there might be one or two little personal contests going on in the England side."

Turning to middle-order duo Bell and Collingwood, Arthur added: "I think it is obvious that at five and six, those two players will be under pressure.

"If we can get into five and six when the ball is pretty new, that will be pretty good - and I think there will be one bowler bowling with a cloud over him, knowing that Flintoff is probably going to be fit for the second Test."

Much of the pre-series talk has focused on Kevin Pietersen, who turned his back on his native South Africa to play for England because he felt a racial quota system in domestic cricket was hampering his progress.

Pietersen's very public criticisms of the South African set-up have angered many wthin the Proteas' set-up, notably captain Graeme Smith, who was described as a "muppet" in the England star's autobiography.

South Africa boast a potent pace attack, led by the in-form Dale Steyn, but Arthur insisted Tuesday they would not be targeting Pietersen just for the sake of settling old scores.

"We're not going to get involved in any sideshows," he said. "Graeme is pretty adamant he's not going to get involved, and I don't think any of our players will either. In fact, there is a lot of respect for Kevin in our dressing room."

As well as Steyn, South Africa also have another genuinely fast bowler in Morne Morkel.

England, in the absence of Flintoff and the dropped Stephen Harmison have no similar firepower.

Tests are often won by the side with the better fast bowlers and Arthur said: "When I was doing my planning for the series, what I thought England lack is an out-and-out 'quick' - someone like a guy like Flintoff or Harmison.

"I know any captain wants an out-and-out quick in their set-up. I thought the England attack were very steady, could do a really good job as a unit, but might have lacked genuine pace."

However, England seamer Stuart Broad said 'better' was not always a matter of 'quicker'. And with England having won their last two series, both against New Zealand, Broad reckoned they did not need a drastic change of plan.

"We've got two world class swing-bowlers (Ryan Sidebottom and James Anderson) with the new ball so obviously we'll be hoping it swings.

"I think we all bowl above 85mph which is useful, but we look to do things with the ball."

Broad added: "The key for us, which we've talked about, is not to try and match pace and bounce and not be something we're not."

South Africa, who've yet to win a Test series in England since the end of their apartheid-enforced isolation despite twice coming close, have often been labelled "chokers", a team that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

Defeating England over the course of this four-match campaign would go some way to ridding themselves of that unwanted tag and Arthur said: "England are a very good team who are incredibly hard to beat at home.

"We haven't won a series here since unity. A series win in England is huge for us, right up there on our priority list."

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