Lightning victorious on Flintoff return
Andrew Flintoff made his long-awaited return to county cricket in front of a packed crowd at New Road but was hardly needed as Lancashire Lightning took charge of the NatWest T20 Blast North Group in a 50-run defeat of Worcestershire Rapids.
Half-centuries by Ashwell Prince and Jos Buttler swept them to their highest score in the competition, beating the 220 for five which was set on Flintoff's last first-team appearance when he made 93 from 41 balls at Derby in 2009.
On his comeback, after a break of five years and 11 days, he was not required at all as a batsman, doing no more than putting his pads on in the 19th over and taking them off with a ball to go as Worcestershire's bowlers took their biggest-ever mauling in the competition.
He was finally in the action, conceding 15 runs in the sixth over, but came back with a wicket in each of two later spells for an overall return of 4-0-36-2, almost mirroring his figures of 2-32 against Derbyshire Falcons before retirement.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, his pace was down on his glory years and it would have been a jolt to be cut for four and pulled for six from his first two balls by former Shropshire captain Richard Oliver.
The Rapids were putting up a fight at that stage with Oliver and skipper Daryl Mitchell, who contributed 44 and 46 respectively, smashing 90 in the first nine overs but they were gone, both falling to Steven Croft's off-spin, before Flintoff was called on again for the 13th over.
Again he was given a rough reception, with Tom Kohler-Cadmore pulling his first ball for six, but the former Malvern College batsman was bowled attempting to drive the fourth.
When Flintoff came back for the 17th over, he had Alexei Kervezee comfortably caught at long-on and the Rapids were ultimately pegged back to 179 for seven.
Leaders Lancashire are now close to guaranteeing a place in the quarter-finals and second-placed Worcestershire are still strong contenders to reach the knockout stage despite their first defeat in any competition since they were beaten at Old Trafford in May.
The Rapids rebounded from that setback in a run of six consecutive wins but momentum may have been lost when their last two games were washed out.
Their bowlers strayed off line as Tom Smith came out firing, with three fours in the first nine deliveries, and Lancashire scored at 10 runs an over through the powerplay.
Even Saeed Ajmal, with a previous economy rate of six runs per over, was smashed for a straight six by Smith in a first over costing 14 runs but the Pakistan spinner got his reward when the left-hander was easily stumped after a quickfire 30 from 20 balls.
The rate was maintained as Prince picked up the pace in a stand of 60 in six overs before his new partner, Karl Brown, looped a catch to short third-man, but this only brought in Buttler to take the bowling apart in a 26-ball half-century.
His first six went out of the ground and two more clattered into the New Road Stand in a partnership of 93 in seven overs which ended when he was caught at midwicket by Brett D'Oliveira, playing his first game since the death of his father Damian last weekend.
D'Oliveira also ran out Prince with a return from cover after the South African had made 68 from 43 balls but Croft, in his 96th consecutive game in the competition, secured the record total with 29 not out, including 20 of the 24 runs from the last over of the innings.
Lancashire top-scorer Prince was happy to see Flintoff back and doing what he does best - taking wickets and entertaining the crowd.
He said: "It's good to have the big man back.
"Obviously he's always a crowd favourite and I think he will be happy with his performance today, getting a few wickets as well. He must have been a bit nervous starting but he dragged it back nicely towards the end.
"He is an experienced player and I think he will only get better as the competition goes on. He's a character, the game needs characters, and to have him in the dressing room ... happy days."
Worcestershire director of cricket Steve Rhodes said of Flintoff: "Freddie is not shy of a challenge and coming back in itself is a bit of a challenge. He will be pleased to have got the first game over."
On the group positions, his side having lost both meetings with the Red Rose, Rhodes added: "Lancashire have proved to be a very good side. Now it's up to us to make sure we get qualified (for the quarter-finals)."