James Lawton: Burden of expectation will have a dramatic role to play in Flintoff show

All eyes are on one man as the Ashes head for Edgbaston – but England cannot cling to belief that one man can slay the Australians alone
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The Independent Online

English cricket and their somewhat undernourished supporters have done plenty of lionising in their time but never before has one man carried the kind of burden Andrew Flintoff takes on to the field here today. Whatever the weight, though, he can hardly complain.

Some men smile sheepishly and shrug their shoulders when heroism is heaped upon them. "Freddie" tends to look as though he is auditioning for a remake of Gladiator.

The question is a big one, however. Can he really carry the freight? Can he do what he did so memorably four years ago, when his body was much less assailed, and wage the fight right up to the moment the Ashes are regained? Or will he lapse into the mode of 2006-07, when the highest expectations foundered amid some of the worst neglect of competitive responsibilities ever seen in a major sportsman?

That might sound like a mean appraisal of Flintoff's situation after his spectacular performance at Lord's but we can be sure it is one the Australians, however highly they rate the recent evidence of their most celebrated opponent's match-winning potential, will be entertaining today.

They note that, with the disappearance of Kevin Pietersen, this Ashes series has become the Flintoff show.

They also know that it takes more than one extraordinary performance to shape the course of cricket's longest haul. If that wasn't true we could all have attended to other business in 2005 after Glenn McGrath eviscerated England at Lord's.

McGrath's mishap before the start of play in the next Test at Edgbaston was a crushing blow to Australian momentum. Yet now we can only speculate nervously on the effect on England of any faltering of the Flintoff juggernaut, any hard evidence that the toll he exacted on himself at Lord's has come back with an extra charge.

What cannot be doubted is that Ricky Ponting and his men have surely identified their shortest route to the kind of recovery that seemed on the point of being cemented after a low-key start on the first day of the first Test in Cardiff. In that match Flintoff had been marginalised after one brief bout of brilliantly intimidating fury directed at a nervous Phillip Hughes.

This is the renewed Australian prerogative today: scaling down Flintoff, building situations which will require him to keep his batteries charged – and his big limbs supple – for time spread longer than his adrenalin-soaked exploitation of the Lord's cockpit on the fifth morning of the last Test.

Have the Aussies got the mettle to mount such a serious challenge to the advanced beatification of Flintoff, the all-time Ashes hero? It would be foolish, historically and psychologically ignorant to believe that they do not.

In fact, the nagging truth might be that in the rush to invest Flintoff with series-winning properties, as opposed to dangerous bursts of lingering power and physical fitness, England and their supporters may have somewhat underplayed strengths that might just prove – given all that has gone before – most enduring.

Certainly, a more measured analysis of events at Sophia Gardens and Lord's draws us to performances that were the bedrocks of English success; efforts of superb application from first Paul Collingwood in Cardiff, and then captain Andrew Strauss at Lord's.

Strauss spoke yesterday of his feeling that the Australians have lost the ability to inspire awe along with the departures of McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. Perhaps, though, he had been on more solidly tested ground when he touched earlier on the need of Pietersen to consider more carefully his priorities with the evidence that his indisposition, and the fineness of Flintoff's fitness margins, in the most important collision in cricket have much to do with their involvement in the Indian Premier League.

That seemed like a most valuable calling to arms of a new generation of English Test cricketers.

Strauss has indeed been striking some of the most rational notes heard in English cricket since the waning of Michael Vaughan, the last authentic captain of the team.

His chances of making a decent stab at the job were roundly discounted, despite the fact that the sober view had to be that he had much the stronger credentials for the task when he lost out in the public popularity stakes first won by Flintoff, then Pietersen. Of course that pessimism had much to do with the chaos that accompanied England's reaction to the terrorism threat in India, and the hapless nature of the Pietersen resignation/sacking affair.

Strauss has, however, shown a resilience and roundness of nature utterly vital to the nature of the challenge that faced him when he led the team to the Caribbean. He has produced some outstanding performance and considerable strength of mind, not least when he elected to rest up his bowlers for a decisive final strike rather than enforce the follow-on at Lord's.

It means Ponting and his underperforming bowlers are undoubtedly on the back foot this morning. However, it is fanciful to imagine anything less than ferocious resistance from them to the idea that they are doomed to spend the rest of the summer under the shadow of the giant Flintoff.

Of course, the big man remains an imposing threat and certainly England have a warrior and a talisman of formidable proportions. Yet they should also know that in the strength there is also a terrible fragility, a physical vulnerability imposed by nature along with the kind of talent once bestowed on Ian Botham, the man whose place in Ashes history he seeks to supplant.

A nation wills him to such prowess this morning and it is not as if it does so without reason. It would be foolish, though, to forget that perhaps never before has so much been expected of a single cricketer who just happens to be operating at the very limits of his physical fitness.

Nor should it be forgotten that the Gladiator is being asked to slay opponents with no great history of falling on their swords. It means, of course, that the thumbs-up sign we saw at Lord's must still be seen as somewhat premature.