Broad shoulders to take on the mantle of the next Flintoff
Life without Freddie suddenly doesn't seem so bad as young pretender comes of age in Oval cauldron
There was something perfectly poignant about the timing. All summer long – and for a few summers before that – there had been the nagging question about life after Flintoff. It mattered not that for half the time during Flintoff, the man himself was never there.
His performance at Lord's in the Second Test merely exacerbated the issue. Five wickets, bowling virtually on one leg, and victory against Australia at Lord's for the first time in three-quarters of a century. Here was the warrior being a warrior and winning the match in a theatrical exhibition whose memory will endure.
And when he was left out at Leeds – dropped would not be too extreme considering the embarrassing reaction from Flintoff's agent commenting on his charge's distress – and England played like patsies, the topic had fresh resonance.
So as Freddie and the Ashes circus reached their final destination at The Oval, it was made for him. He would bestride the scene and as he limped into the sunset England would be in his wake wondering what the hell to do next.
Instead Fred stood by in a supporting role – an important one, but supporting for all that – while another produced the astonishing performance with the ball that put the Ashes within England's grasp.
As Stuart Broad bowled the spell of his embryonic international career, Flintoff, who was encouraging throughout, might have considered signalling to the dressing room for a baton to be brought on so he could pass it on.
Broad may well bowl spells of equal statistical weight for England in the 10 years that would seem to lie ahead for him, but none of them will match its resonance. Or at least none until he passes on the baton.
It would be misguided to presume that Broad is the new Flintoff; a walk to glory beckons and that's that. Broad is a different player from Flintoff as Flintoff has been a different player from another all-rounder, Ian Botham.
But Broad now gives England some realistic options. He has grown visibly as a cricketer throughout the series and he has a presence which he is all too willing to let the opposition know about. This he has done despite extreme scepticism about his development and he has been willing to absorb lessons and put them into practice. Doubtless he has been helped by the faith placed in him by England's coach, Andy Flower.
At every turn, when asked, Flower has never missed the opportunity to pay tribute to Broad's approach and the manner in which he has taken to Test cricket. Broad's temperament is imperfect, he has inherited some of the foibles of his father, Chris, and if his refusal to be cowed is commendable in some circumstances he might consider buttoning his lip occasionally.
What Broad has demonstrated above all in this match – apart from probably winning the Ashes – is that there is a future for this England side. It is a modest squad which is on the verge of beating a modest Australia side.
The Australians, from being No 1 one in the world for so long, will fall in the official rankings from one to four, a place above England. It is a tumble from grace usually experienced only by chart-topping records that everyone has already bought.
Australia have problems of their own. They must resolve them on their own. No need to send in food parcels to the Cricket Australia HQ in Jollimont Street, Melbourne just yet.
Flower and Andrew Strauss, the England captain, will have had their plate full this past few months with working out how to beat Australia (and must sometimes have despaired about doing so). But with Flintoff's departure now certain, they will always have had at the back of their minds what could be done, how the team would be balanced.
Broad, it may be presumed, would be too high at No 7 but he has done well enough at eight in this series – two fifties, plenty of other bold runs – to suggest that the notion, against most teams, is not wholly fanciful.
England have plenty of defects. They need to start thinking of hiring a spare opener, they might like to consider discovering a middle-order batsmen who was not taught the game in South Africa. They have looked ordinary to the point of incompetence at times.
But they have hung on in there. England came to The Oval expected to lose. Instead they will recapture the Ashes. Broad's magnificent 5 for 37 on Friday afternoon, which had nothing to do with the pitch, was pivotal. In those two hours things changed forever.
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