Australia show how champions lose as Flintoff gives lesson in right way to win
His huge moustache, never more beautifully groomed, would have been the pride of an officer of the Hussars. Generally, and it has to reported that this was the case with most of his countryman, he looked about as cowed as the time in Melbourne when, having been described as a "fat bus conductor" by the abrasive Javed Miandad, he unfurled a killer ball and then chirped, "Ticket please, mate." That is an old sledging story but so is the point.
There is rarely such a thing as a beaten Australian cricketer. He is merely temporarily inconvenienced and if we had doubts about this they were surely expunged by the epic resilience of Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz on Sunday morning. It was this that made the triumph of Michael Vaughan's England team so especially heart-warming. At Lord's they surrendered. At Edgbaston they held their nerve, and they did it against cricket's most natural-born competitors.
In the two-run defeat Australia came so close to a victory that would have scorched the bones of Vaughan's men. They also reminded us how real champions lose. They resent the idea so much it is almost as though the worry is that it might just contaminate their blood.
England's achievement - and it was a stunning one - was to match that intensity in a Test match that had breathtaking dimensions. After Lord's the gut instinct here was to bring in an Australian supremo of English cricket, someone to lay down a new set of values - or maybe re-install an old one. It was a theory which retained a certain viability right up to the moment of England's victory, at which point the author of it had a flicker of apprehension that he might just be hauled off to the Tower and have his head stuck on a spike. We will know about the permanent nature, or otherwise, of England's resistance to the Australian way of playing cricket in the early going of the third Test that starts at Old Trafford on Thursday morning, but in the meantime we have reason to celebrate more than one unforgettable victory.
We have so many images of a high summer of English sport being ignited quite superbly. Perhaps the best of all was the sight of the conqueror, Andrew Flintoff, bending down to comfort the disconsolate Lee. That inevitably provoked a comparison with the behavioural patterns of football, where in Cardiff the Premiership had its dress rehearsal at the Community Shield game in Cardiff. Before the match Chelsea's Jose Mourinho and Arsenal's Arsène Wenger dazzled the television screen with something which eerily hinted at warm respect, even regard. It took the form of a handshake, but how soon will it be remembered as something closer to a Judas kiss? Certainly the bickering started soon enough.
Cricket, despite the glory of Edgbaston, is far from perfect. Passions have already run high with three Tests to go. Simon Jones was fined for his gesture of dismissal to Matthew Hayden and by all accounts some of the sledging has lost nothing in ferocity. However, when the battle was over there was no shortfall of respect. Flintoff made his gesture to Lee at a time when a football superstar would almost certainly have been running to the crowd - and the cameras - for a photo op of glory. Later the big Lancastrian confirmed the sense of a young man perfectly in tune with himself and his game. Some of his words may sound a little artless, but they are no less appealing for that.
Both captains spoke in a way that rang entirely true. Vaughan admitted that defeat would have been catastrophic for his team's morale, and that he had feared that a precious moment was slipping away. Australia's Ponting faced up to the fact that it was a killing mistake to put England in to bat. However, after praising the victors, he said he expected a massive response from his team. The margin of defeat was so slight that it dramatically reinforced the need to fight for every run, every little advantage. The third Test was still four nights away, but it was as though it had already started.
The gift to cricket, and its highest form, the Test game, is the greatest that any sport can receive. It is the fine edge of genuine competition, the uncertainty that enveloped Edgbaston as a physical presence. When you felt that you also thought of the claim of Peter Kenyon, the money man of Roman Abramovich, that the Premiership winners would come from a "bunch of one". It was a statement guaranteed to fill anyone who cares about sport with repugnance, and when you thought that it could come from the chief executive of the football champions of England it was to redouble the level of disgust. Watching the second Test, and anticipating the third, amount to a thrilling release. Cricket's most pressing need is maybe a tranquilliser or two. Football's? It might just try a little fumigation.
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