LONDON // Andrew Flintoff is enjoying his rewards to the full, after the "dark times" he spent recovering the form and fitness he needs to be an English linchpin once again. A man-of-the-match performance from Flintoff on Sunday helped England march to a fourth successive NatWest Series victory over South Africa - putting a 5-0 whitewash firmly in their sights.
On a rainy day, there was enough time between the downpours for the all-rounder first of all to take 3-21 as the tourists were restricted to 183-6 in 32.1 overs - and then finish unbeaten on 31 in a seven-wicket win. Set only 137 on a Duckworth-Lewis recalculation, Kevin Pietersen and Owais Shah - on his home ground - shared a stand of 74, before Flintoff completed the job with 14 balls of England's 20 overs to spare.
It is all a world away from the months of worry over his physical well-being - after the last of his four operations on his left ankle - not to mention the worrying loss of batting form he endured earlier this summer. Flintoff makes no secret of how tough the going has been at times, yet is a master of understatement too as he vows against complacency. "I'm doing all right - but I'm not going to get carried away," he said, having hit five fours and a six from only 12 balls as England cantered home in the gloom. "One decision I made when I was coming back was that if I didn't think I could play as well as I had done or better I wouldn't go through it all.
"But the one thing that keeps you going is the thought of having days like today. There have been some dark times and some average times. But once you put an England shirt on, you want to keep putting it back on." Flintoff is determined to keep his feet on the ground, in a game he knows can come back and bite you any time. "I think today maybe I could have bowled a bit better, so I'm still being a bit critical of myself," he added.
Pietersen was impressed not just with Flintoff but everyone else in his team. "He's playing some of the best cricket he's ever played, and so are some of the others," said the captain. "It was a great performance by the lads - they were exceptional again. "They were asked to do a job and turned up and delivered. There is nothing more you can ask. "Winning becomes a habit. When you start winning game after game after game, you start to learn how to win," he said. * PA Sport