Flintoff gets his reward
Andrew Flintoff reflected on his first England half-century for over 18 months as justification for his fightback from career-threatening injury.
England all-rounder Flintoff put in his best display since returning from his fourth ankle operation as Kevin Pietersen’s team began the NatWest Series in style.
His 78 at Headingley Carnegie on Friday was his first one-day international score in excess of 50 since a match-sealing innings against New Zealand in Hobart in January 2007 - and only his second such score in 31 visits to the crease.
The 30-year-old also chipped in with two wickets at the death to break through the 150-mark in ODIs as South Africa’s hopes of returning to the top of the world rankings took an immediate jolt.
“This is a bit better than I have been playing and I have to take it on from here,” Flintoff said. “I have said all along I feel I have a lot to offer.
“With all the ankle operations and all the questions over me if I didn’t think I could play this type of cricket, I wouldn’t have gone through it all again.
“It will only be through performances that ultimately I will be judged.”
Entrusted with the number five batting position in the new regime - one which he has enjoyed success in over the years for England - Flintoff’s work behind the scenes, particularly with Phil Neale, who has coached him at under-19 and A team level, bore fruit.
It was a stand of 158 with man-of-the-match Pietersen, in fact, which proved crucial in a 20-run victory under the Leeds lights.
The way Pietersen embraced his fourth-wicket partner highlighted the significance of the contribution - both on the day and potentially to the future development of a limited-overs team which has struggled for years.
“I have not scored 50 for a while, so it was nice to stick my bat up, I didn’t know what to do,” said a relaxed Flintoff. “Kevin realises I have worked hard on my batting, and I think he was just as pleased as I was.
“He wants me to play my natural game and the way in which he has seen me bat and knows I can do.
“You can play with no fear, you can play with freedom but you can’t be reckless. There is a balance for us all to find and hopefully the recklessness is behind me.
“I played to my strengths and was quite calculated in the way I played. Now I have to keep doing that.
“I got a few out of the middle early on and gave myself a chance by looking at a few. I have got a sound technique, I feel, and a method which has worked in the past.
“It is just building on that. I have been working with Phil on my balance, making sure my head is not going over, I have two eyes on the ball, and I am playing it late.”
The exciting alliance between Flintoff and Pietersen, who finished unbeaten on 90, could not have been any better timed as England appeared on course for an under-par score at 117 for three after 30 overs.
Only opener Matt Prior had struck a boundary in that period but once Flintoff ended the drought, the fours flowed.
“It was when Kevin and I had been at the crease for a while when I decided to take it on a little bit more,” Flintoff said.
“It helped batting with him, he’s obviously a fine player and he can make things look easy at times.
“That can sometimes translate to the other end.”
Pietersen’s captaincy is also infectious, according to his 2005 Ashes-winning team-mate.
“Kevin is a very confident lad,” Flintoff added. “Very single-minded, determined and that has rubbed off on the rest of the team.
“He is very up front with his views and the way he plays his cricket and as a team we are doing that well.
“For me, as well, I am back to a role which I feel comfortable in.”
England’s stock has also been boosted by the reversal of Steve Harmison’s limited-overs retirement weeks after his Test comeback inspired a series-concluding victory at the Brit Oval.
After South Africa’s first defeat in 10 outings and only their fourth in 20, Flintoff said: “I always enjoy playing with the big lad. He is a class act.
“When he played at the Oval, his first over back gave the side a lift. “When you have someone bowling that quick with that much bounce, and you are into the opposition, everyone gets a lift from it.
“It is nice to see him playing one-day cricket again and smiling.
“Coming back was up to him, it was his decision, but if he carries on the way he is doing he is going to help the side’s success.”