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Flintoff exits to place among the greats

Andrew Flintoff struck the familiar pose. Arms wide. Head back. The lord of the Oval and the king of the Ashes.

It was 2.34pm on a sun-burnt English summer's afternoon and the man who had looked little more than a bit-part player in the 79th and final Test of a wonderful career had just played the most important part.

Not with the bat. Not with his bowling arm. But with a sling-shot throw of precision and speed to run out Australian captain Ricky Ponting.

The roar which accompanied the video confirmation of that decision on the big screen could have launched a moon rocket.

What did 'Freddie' do? Simply flung his floppy hat in the air as if he had just backed the 100-1 shot in the Epsom Derby.

True, much work still remained to wheedle out an obdurate Australian side and mortar shells full of gasps and groans filled the south London air late into the early evening.

But, make no mistake, it was the moment which won the Ashes. The moment which transformed the Oval into a fever of anticipation as the crowd sang 'Sweet Chariot' and the ever-present bugler blew until his lungs were bursting.

The realisation that the Ashes were gone was written all over the grim features of Ponting as he stood motionless. Disbelieving. Disconsolate. Until finally he trudged away up the pavilion steps and it is doubtful whether he will ever be seen in Ashes action in England again.

Just like Flintoff, who came to his farewell party just when he was needed most.

The great sporting characters have always possessed that sort of timing. Botham, Beckham, Wilkinson. It is written into their DNA.

Players born to play a pivotal role.

But as long as he lives Ponting will always be haunted by that fateful run. Did a hint of hesitation cost him dear? Should partner Michael Hussey even have countenanced a run for a shot which went pretty much straight to Flintoff at mid-on?

What prompted such a moment of madness?

What were the Australians thinking of after getting themselves into a position at 217 for two with the Oval crowd increasingly nervy and thoughts turning realistically to the prospect of a triumphant record run chase?

Where will Ponting go from here? Not home to Australia any time soon if he has any sense after becoming the first Australian captain since Bill Murdoch in 1990 to lose two Ashes series in England.

Maybe it is harsh to conclude that Ponting threw away the Ashes when he took on Flintoff's throw.

But Australia were progressing so serenely, so doggedly that the impossible was becoming merely the highly improbable.

There was no need to take risks. At that stage some might even have been backing the fact that Aussie sportsmen are not renowned for rolling over. Do not know the meaning of surrender.

Even early setbacks when openers Simon Katich and Shane Watson went within the space of four balls only seemed to heighten the resolve.

Australian jaws were jutted, teeth gritted. And nervous murmurs reverberated around the ground as Ponting and Hussey went remorselessly on in heroic fashion.

Yet great sporting prizes often turn on twists of fate. Invariably wrest on iconic moments. Moments determined by fractions of inches.

The irony at the Oval was that two more of the tightest decisions seen this series were to follow in swift succession. First, Michael Clarke being dismissed after his leg glance hit Alastair Cook on the foot and ricocheted to Andrew Strauss who palmed the ball on to the wicket.

Then Marcus North being stumped by Matt Prior in the tightest of decisions.

But that, after the whitewash and humiliation of 2007, is what has made this such a compelling series.

Heroic batting such as the 121 of Hussey. Brilliant bowling such as Stuart Broad's five wickets in that unforgettable spell on Saturday afternoon.

The hostile spell thrown in by Steve Harmison as the shadows drew in to prise out Australia's tail.

And, of course, the brilliant fielding of Flintoff. What a match. What a series. What an ending. For England and Flintoff. Sport simply does not come better than that.