James Lawton: Clash of titans enthrals as Flintoff carries the fight to serpent of spin

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The Independent Online

Yet when the final accountancy comes in the next few days here is one that might prove to be the most decisive of all: it is 1:40pm and the Australians, caged and desperate for so long, have the old sniff of English blood.

They have taken - or rather their talisman genius Shane Warne has - four wickets and there are just 131 runs on the board. The gold of England captain Michael Vaughan's winning call of the toss has become very shoddy metal indeed.

The dramatic point is that suddenly Warne is bowling and "Freddie" Flintoff is batting. The long dangerous summer has come to a head, as it did when the great matadors Luis Dominguin and Antonio Ordonez fought hand to hand across Spain.

Here, nearly 50 years later, we have cricket's high summer equivalent. Flintoff the lion against Warne the serpent of spin; brave youth against the subtlety and cunning of age. The Oval, splashed in vivid sunshine, is so quiet you can hear fevered breathing seats away. Is this the most telling phase in the latest and most extravagant, unlikely drama of more than one hundred years of fierce rivalry?

We didn't quite know then - and we still don't, not in the cool and reflection of evening, but one thing is certain. If Flintoff, the heart and the sword-striking arm of England, had faltered when Warne was taking on powers of intimidation remarkable even in the weeks of stunning farewell at the age of 35, what we would be discussing now would not be the possibility of a four-day extension of the knife edge on which the previous four Tests had been conducted.

We would be saying that the Aussies, harried and challenged at almost every stage in the only series in which they had been properly challenged in 18 years, had finally got us in the end. After all the glory of Vaughan's men, the power of Flintoff, the big innings of Strauss and Trescothick and the captain, they had conjured some last burst of killing resistance, enough at least for them to hang on to the Ashes.

Sobriety insists that such is still the possibility. At the close of play, England could certainly not be overjoyed at the fruit of Vaughan's third successful call out of five: 319 for 7 was only a slender downpayment on the price of shutting out the Australians from the victory which they must achieve to keep the Ashes. But then when Flintoff came to the wicket to face Warne it could suddenly have turned so much worse. Warne long ago established in English cricket hearts and brains the capacity to strike in the most devastating, even unworldly fashion. But here, jogging in endlessly once it became clear to his captain, Ricky Ponting, that the sky, clearing to a bright blue, and the flat track, offered no assistance to his fast-bowling team-mates, he seemed to take on still another new dimension. He moved the ball certainly, at times quite sharply, but this was a story of the technique of leg-spin. It was a lesson in inflicting what you have left of your aura. Warne, as the great throng who choked the streets around the Oval before play suspected he would be, was yet again laden with it.

So if it wasn't Warne the Saviour of Oz it wasn't going to be anybody, not on this day when almost everything could be settled. He had sent back Trescothick, Vaughan, Bell and Pietersen by a weird alchemy of menace and maybe even auto-suggestion. Was it the fabled sight of Warne running into the wicket that induced the poor, nervy, shots? It was a purely academic question once Flintoff engaged the problem of dwindling England nerve.

With Strauss once again reminding us that that he is a not-so young Test batsman of deep substance, one whose late arrival on the big stage is another reflection of an old, and, we hope, extinct way of doing things in English cricket, it was a crisis that desperately needed the new confidence, even bravura of Freddie Flintoff.

He did not disappoint - at least not for two hours and 41 minutes which spoke of the best of England's assault on these world champion Australians. Flintoff, massive and fiercely concentrated, hit Warne for three fours in one over. Each one was a small essay in easily gathered, almost insouciant power. Once he drove Warne through the covers as a maharajah might swat a fly. Finally, he straight drove the Australian virtuoso for six runs. It was a towering shot, the moment when the impressionable might have believed that the Ashes had once again become English property.

In all, Flintoff hit 13 boun-daries, 12 fours. His total of 72 may yet be the difference between huge glory and the most bitter of disappointment, but as the crowd left the Oval inevitably there was the sense of choked euphoria. Flintoff's glory this summer has been to excite the highest hopes. If Warne is Merlin, Flintoff is surely an amiable Sir Lancelot and for a little while yesterday it seemed that he would once again carry not only the day but England's Ashes destiny.

That was the disappointment that caught the Oval by the throat - and re-ignited Australian belief that they might indeed escape from England without the pain of shocking defeat. Warne, inevitably it seemed, played a part in Flintoff's downfall. McGrath delivered a fine ball, Flintoff, who had become becalmed, played it with low-level conviction and Warne swooped at slip. The spinner's bowling figures were another gift to legend... 34 overs, four maidens, 118 runs, five wickets. He had bowled for most of the day and hugely extended Australia's debt to his willingness to fight through to the last round.

Flintoff, who had met his challenge spectacularly enough, was also due his nation's thanks. He had, for a little while at least, faced down the man who is fighting the hardest, and most brilliantly, to save the Ashes.