Flintoff retains dignity in face of the inevitable

In his final act as England captain, Andrew Flintoff was perfectly noble. He did not hide, he did not bluster, he did not cry, although he must have been desperate to find a darkened room somewhere in which he could weep buckets and try to forget it had ever happened.

England had been beaten, nay hammered, by 10 wickets on the fourth day of the fifth Test in Sydney and the Ashes series result read: Australia 5, England 0. Only once before had there been such a catastrophe. On 1 March 1921 on this very ground, Australia won by nine wickets to secure their whitewash.

The tourists were led then by Johnny Douglas, an old boy of Felsted, who had won an Olympic gold medal for boxing and played football for the England amateur team. It is difficult to imagine that Douglas was as dignified as the old boy of Ribbleton Hall High School, Preston was yesterday.

Perhaps Fred was relieved that it was all over at last and that he would no longer have to try to slug it out on the most uneven terms with the best team in the world playing better than they had ever done.

Barely an hour after Matthew Hayden had thrashed the runs which took Australia to victory - levelling the scores with a six thumped unceremoniously over long on and then punching a single through cover - Flintoff attempted to put the result into some kind of perspective. "They hit us hard in the first game," he said. "In patches we have competed with them and played some good cricket but every time we have tried to get a foot in the door it has been closed in front of us."

He was at a loss to explain how or why so many key players had under-performed. The highest opening partnership of the series was 45, the first time in a full Ashes series in Australia when the tourists had failed to put on at least one half-century first-wicket partnership. They were bowled out five times for under 162. Out of a nominal 100 Australian wickets at their disposal, England took only 59.

"It's hard to put your finger on," said Flintoff. "It's inevitable that players will lose form from time to time. Quite a few of us have done it at the same time and coming to places like this that just can't happen.

"Going in to that first Test at the Gabba we thought we could do something but we have come up against a side who have been magnificent for five Tests."

He derided the notion that England were insufficiently prepared: "I'm not going to make excuses. That first match at the Gabba I was ready to play Test cricket, and I think I can vouch that for the rest of the lads."

But that was not the truth. England were not ready at Brisbane. Indeed, when Australia's captain Ricky Ponting was asked about the turning point of the series, the moment when he felt Australia's foot was on England's throat, he replied: "The drinks break at Brisbane." It might even have been earlier than that: the first ball of the series from Stephen Harmison, a wide that landed in the hands of Flintoff at second slip.

Ponting admitted to having a tear in his eye at the loss to the side of three great players: Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer. He also revealed something of the real difference between England and Australia: "It's important that we enjoy this for what it is because to achieve what we have doesn't happen every day. But in a couple of days' time, it's back to work again."

The last word should go to the great showman himself. Reflecting on leaving the glare of the spotlight, Warne said: "Hopefully, I will get people off my front lawn and following me in cars. Maybe I can get my gear off and dance on top of the bar if I want to." He just might.

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