England, South Africa Entertain Edgbaston Test Cricket Crowd

Joe WilliamsCorrespondent IAugust 1, 2008

Thursday and Friday produced the two most scintillating days of international cricket this summer has seen so far, with England and South Africa tussling for supremacy in the third test match.

The stakes are high: a win for South Africa would secure their first series win in England since being re-admitted to the international arena and cast serious doubt over the future of Michael Vaughan's outfit. However, if England pull off an unlikely victory, their confidence will be high for a mouth-watering decider at The Oval next week.

The story of the first day and a half of the test was of a sorry England limping to an inevitable defeat at the hand of a good, though not great, Proteas side. Winning the toss and electing to bat on a good pitch, England could only muster 231. Cook led the batting with just 76.

Strauss could consider himself the victim of a freak dismissal (hit wicket) and Vaughan of unlikely umpiring. The rest of the top order all got out playing impatient, mediocre shots that frustrated the home crowd no end.

The general debacle was epitomised by the successive run outs of Anderson and Panesar that bought the curtain down on the first innings, with a dangerous looking Flintoff stranded on 36 not out. 

The Edgbaston faithful, who stayed on to watch South Africa come into bat, enjoyed a rare cheer with the dismissal of Graeme Smith before the close of play. But it was in vain as South Africa cruised passed the 200 mark with only four wickets down on the second day.

In the final session something happened, something changed. A battle emerged between Flintoff and the evergreen Jacques Kallis, one of those battles that makes Test Cricket so special.  It is no exaggeration to say there were shades of the epic duel between Alan Donald and Michael Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1998.

After umpire Aleem Dar inexplicably declined an LBW appeal, Flintoff returned the following over to send Kallis' off-stump flying, lifting Freddie into celebratory ecstasies matching those of the apocalyptic Andre Nel. Unsated, he provoked AB de Villiers into top-edging a well-taken catch to Sidebottom at deep fine leg before the close of the play.

South Africa had a lead of 83 by the time England wrapped up the last four wickets on Day Three: a decent lead but slender compared to expectations just two sessions earlier.

England looked like they were up to their old tricks again when reduced to 104-4: Cook, Vaughan and Bell all guilty of criminally wasteful dismissals. A horribly out-of-touch Paul Collingwood and the erratic Pietersen didn't bode well for a game-saving partnership but they put on a gutsy and fluent 115 to bring the game back to life once more.

But on 94 Pietersen recklessly holed out to mid on, and with Paul Harris dismissing Flintoff for only 2, the game seem to have swung back to the Proteas once more.

Yet Collingwood held firm, reaching a career-saving century just before the close of play, with Tim Ambrose offering invaluable support. England's lead is 214, and they'll be hoping to increase that to 250 before bowling for the match.

What has been most pleasing about this test match has been the various stories and characters involved, interwoven in the way that only test cricket can do. The feist of Nel, the heroics of Flintoff, the character of Collingwood and the ever-shifting balance of power.

It has been immensely entertaining, even listening via the radio. It is how test cricket should be and must be if it is to survive as the prestige format amidst the glamour and cash of 20/20 fever. Credit to South Africa if they succeed, yet one can't help feeling that the edge felt at Edgbaston will be lacking at The Oval if they wrap up the series today.