In the churchyard of St John the Evangelist in the Hampshire village of West Meon lies the grave of Thomas Lord. Every four years around this time he must turn in it as England try again to beat Australia at the ground he built in 1814.
It has not happened on 18 occasions since 1934 and the time before that was in 1896. The old boy, who died in 1832, might have been rotating a little more last night with the latest revelations about England's two most illustrious players. Andrew Flintoff formally confirmed yesterday his intention to retire from Test cricket, getting in first just before his rickety body did it for him, and will depart after this series. He remains a slight doubt even for the crucial match that begins today and will be watched not only by a house full for the entire five days but by the eyes of the cricket world after the rousing draw in Cardiff.
But if optimism was growing for Flintoff now that he has a clear short-term objective in mind, it was declining rapidly around Kevin Pietersen, whose chronic Achilles tendon injury has recurred. Some informed reports yesterday suggested that Pietersen was extremely uncertain about playing in the second Test, with the Ashes dramatically tied at 0-0.
England denied that Pietersen was in doubt, pointing out that they had released their only spare batsman, Ian Bell, though the one does not necessarily follow the other, given past performances on divining the fitness for duty or otherwise of players.
Flintoff had three cortisone injections in his troublesome knee on Monday and Pietersen had one in his Achilles at the same time – the last possible – following another in his side last week. For a little while it seemed that England's Big Two were extending their friendly but meaningful rivalry even into the treatment room.
The day's events were dominated by Flintoff's declaration, early evidence that the summer will be likewise and become a Farewell to Freddie Cavalcade beginning and ending in the metropolis at Lord's and at The Oval, but taking in the provinces in between in the form of Birmingham and Leeds. That assumes that Flintoff's body from ankle upwards stays in one piece.
The captains of both sides, there to give some assessment of how they saw the match developing, were deluged by questions about Flintoff, his contribution to the game and what his departure might mean for this series and for the England side thereafter. There were many more imponderables besides.
Andrew Strauss, the England captain, who had appeared on a question-and-answer platform at his benefit dinner in the Lord's Long Room the previous night when they both managed to keep the secret, was studiously pragmatic.
"As players we've probably had a feeling this was coming sooner rather than later," Strauss said. "With the injuries he's had over the last couple of years, you kind of got the feeling that something had to give and given that Test match bowling puts so much more pressure on his body, it seems like the logical thing to do."
Strauss, however, could probably have done without it coming just now. The series is tied at 0-0 and in England's case that is an extremely fortunate state of affairs. They needed, it would have been thought, to concentrate every fibre of their being on matching or beating Australia in this match on this ground, the quadrennial graveyard of their ambitions.
Flintoff probably felt he had to do it now because before every Test there have been bulletins about his latest injury. At least he was putting a time limit on that, but he might have considered waiting until the end of the series.
His manager, Chubby Chandler, said: "He was going to retire at the end of the series anyway. After he had three cortisone injections on Monday I thought it was maybe an opportunity to sort of get it clear now and letting people know what he was going through as opposed to doing it at the end when win or lose it would look different."
With or without Flintoff (and indeed Pietersen), Strauss has a Test match to win. With or without Flintoff he intends to play five bowlers, which means that Stuart Broad will bat at seven. It is a strategy fraught with risk. But at least it will mean a place for the man in form, Graham Onions, who may be England's unsung trump card. As Strauss said: "I think if you've gone for 670 runs and only taken six wickets, it's probably not a great option to reduce your bowling attack.
"We are pretty comfortable with five bowlers. That's a nice balance for us. I know the bowlers are very keen to make amends for what happened in Cardiff and, hopefully, the conditions here will be a little bit more bowler-friendly."
They need to because it was clear that Australia are ready to protect their proud record at all costs. The potential for more grave-spinning in West Meon is immense, but some time he has to stop and this could be it.
Right said Fred: Flintoff's Test record
Test debut v South Africa (Trent Bridge) July 1998. Won by eight wickets
Caps: 76 (of possible 139)
Inn: 125, Runs: 3,708, Ave: 31.69
100s: 5, 50s: 25, Highest score: 167 v West Indies, Edgbaston, July 2004
Wickets: email@example.com 5-for 2 10-for 0
Best: (innings) 5-58 (match) 8-156Reuse content