Herculean Flintoff hurls himself into last ordeal

It is hard to know who is most tormented here at what could still prove the most decisive phase of this Ashes summer, the Australians who are being sneeringly dismissed as world cricket's yesterday men or the man who appears intent on ambushing and harrying them each step of the way.

This of course is to assume that Andrew Flintoff has got left enough of the steps that seem to rack his huge and, the doctors say, over-used body.

Yet if Flintoff's last summer of Test cricket is plainly an ordeal there is no reason, he is saying, why it should not be played to an unremitting tune of glory.

Flintoff may be on the physical, and maybe even psychological edge, but he knows better than anyone that he is one of the main reasons why the Australians have lost so much of their time-honoured swagger – and were last night fighting to stay in a series in which they already trail by one.

So, he is saying with the support of his captain Andrew Strauss, it is simply a question of pushing himself to the limit and hoping that it is the Aussies who crack first.

After his stupendous bowling on the last morning of the Lord's Test, Flintoff was a bit player in the England attack which was led so brilliantly here by Jimmy Anderson and Graham Onions, but when the rain clouds finally cleared yesterday, who was at centre stage once again? Of course it was Flintoff, this time wielding a massive bat with massive intent.

So where lies his torment? It is, surely, that at the age of 31, after years of operations and controversy and drift after his magnificent contribution to the Ashes triumph of 2005, his days as one of the great natural forces in cricket are racing by faster than the idea that Australia can still intimidate their opponents simply by walking on the field.

That wasn't the case last Friday when first Onions, then Anderson produced swing bowling of the highest calibre to drive a vast hole in the Aussie idea that a flying start to their first innings might just create a platform, in a drastically rain-shortened match, for a strike at an equalising victory.

That might have been a somewhat fanciful notion but it was still alive yesterday afternoon when Flintoff came to the wicket with England at 168 at five, still trailing Australia by 95 runs and with much hard work to do if they were going to bat their opponents out of the match.

Hard work? Flintoff made it seem like the most casual fly-swatting.

Smeared, irretrievably, at least as a front-rank strike bowler in this series, was Shane Watson, a great success on the truncated first day as a surprising replacement opener for the troubled prodigy Phillip Hughes. But when he was thrown into the challenge of maintaining momentum created by the efforts of Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and a sharply improved Mitchell Johnson, Watson was immediately hammered against the ropes by Flintoff.

In just three overs a despairing Australian captain Ricky Ponting was forced to call off the mismatch, Watson having gone for a potentially match-turning 23 runs in that brief time.

There were times when Flintoff's bones, and especially those in his troubled right knee seemed to be rubbing against each other, but it did nothing to halt his assault as he hit 10 fours and one six in his 74 off 79 balls. He went when spinner Nathan Hauritz managed to hit the rough with a perfectly flighted delivery that touched Flintoff's glove before finishing up in the hands of Michael Clarke in the slips.

This brought a great sigh to the ground which had been feasting, as Lord's had two weeks earlier, on the feats of their hero. At Edgbaston there is of course a special feeling for the big man. Not only was he a key player in the unforgettable two-run victory four years ago, he also appointed himself the spiritual guardian of that epic series when he knelt down to commiserate with the beaten Brett Lee. Here yesterday he was cheered in everything he did and when he had the great bat in his hand there was a perfect balance between adulation and raw achievement.

Yet Flintoff's efforts at the batting crease, and the increasing difficulty he seemed to be experiencing between the wickets, seemed to carry a poignant notice of an early closing of the show. Of course, this happens officially in Test cricket at The Oval in three weeks, but in the meantime he has sworn to continue going to the very limits of his powers.

That seemed a promise based more on hope and ambition than practicality when he was occasionally required to run rather than watch a shot streak to the boundary. Yet when England's innings was over, with a first innings lead of 113 secured, there was Flintoff following his Lancashire team-mate Jimmy Anderson with second use of the new ball.

He couldn't conjure the splendour he achieved with the bat but for England this surely was the ultimate emblem of a winning commitment – Flintoff, his body racked, his wisdom sometimes doubted, streaming in for the pursuit of the kill.

Simon Katich and Shane Watson were able to resist Flintoff in his four-over stint but the man who had done so much to shape the day, and, already, this series which has left England in such a strong position, was a brooding talismanic presence.

Onions claimed the wicket of Katich and then came the most devastating blow for the Australians when Graeme Swann sent a superb fizzing ball into Ricky Ponting's stumps. Flintoff, naturally, was at the heart of the celebrations. Once again he had produced an extraordinary surge of performance, the kind which is now, hauntingly, about to disappear. However, that still is a little time into the future and Flintoff, weary and hurting, remains at the heart of his team.

It is not the least daunting intrusion into the psyche of Australian cricket this morning.

Match details: Weather and TV

*Weather Report

Overcast with sunny intervals, remaining dry throughout the day.

Maximum temperature 20C.

*Television Times

10.00-19.00, Sky Sports 1, HD1

Highlights 19.15-20.00, Five

*Results & remaining fixtures

First Test (Cardiff, 8-12 July)

Match drawn

Second Test (Lords, 16-20 July)

England won by 115 runs

Fourth Test (Headingley)

Friday 7 – Tuesday 11 August

Fifth Test (The Oval)

Thursday 20 – Monday 24 August