James Lawton: Flintoff is man for all seasons, even in autumn

The grace, the brilliance and humour of the players of both the sides survived
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The Independent Online

The gut-wrenching result, while doing nothing to compromise the glory of England's achievement in coming here with a 2-1 lead over the world champions Australia, and the moral high ground of outplaying them in three of the previous four Tests, has made a parody of balanced competition in what should have been the last act of a true sporting epic.

Was it too dark for Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick to face the spin bowling of Shane Warne and Michael Clarke - even though it's true that some would say on his best days the former would be a handful on a featherbed in a brightly lit furniture store?

Was it an uplifting statement about the national sporting psyche that after hearing hired opera singers lead stirring versions of "Jerusalem" and "Land of Hope and Glory", more than 20,000 Englishmen and women spent most of the day cheering the fact that their land in late summer is a place of mists, low cloud and, almost certainly, Ashes-bearing fruitfulness? In other words, a season fine for the poet Keats and cricket captains eager to accept an offer to return to the pavilion because of bad light - eager not to face the best spinner the world has ever seen. The short answers are no and no.

But then nothing is simple in England's last reach for the Ashes. Apart, that is, from the fact that, as though it was really necessary, Flintoff, the revelation and the inspiration of England's sporting year, has one again announced that he is a truly great cricketer.

On the first day here he scored a magnificent 72 that was, along with Andrew Strauss' second century of the series, the most brilliant check on the rampant artistry of Warne. Yesterday, again with just one significant ally - this time the tough fellow northerner, Matthew Hoggard, he insisted that the Ashes would indeed become English property again after a break of 16 years.

The details of Flintoff's latest eruption are dramatic enough as he bowled through the murk which Australia's circumstances dictated their batsmen had to brave, but as he added four more victims to the scalp of Australian captain Ricky Ponting which he had claimed on Saturday night, it was again his sheer presence that yet again filled and spilled over one of England's great cricket grounds.

Flintoff's supreme moment yesterday came when he claimed the wicket of the one man to seriously challenge his ownership of the summer - Warne. It wasn't his finest delivery - and Vaughan pouched the catch as though he was handling a Molotov cocktail - but it had symbolism extraordinary even by the standards he has created so quickly, so profoundly.

He had struck another blow at the monstrous prospect of England having to face Warne this morning under the weight of a first innings deficit that, everyone knew, he was capable of turning into an Ashes-denying innings victory. Instead, England, having lost just Strauss to the cunning of Warne, are 40 runs ahead going into a last day that will inevitably be foreshortened.

Here we have the offence against sport at the Oval - one that cannot be blamed, in a world where winning has become the ultimate, and perhaps only, permanent measure of performance, on anyone but those administrators who agreed to an orgy of knockabout one-day cricket in mid-summer - and then the placing of the climax of the Ashes at that time when any club cricketer will tell you that the only sensible option is discussing the summer's events over a pint in the local.

In a more romantic age, maybe Vaughan, having just been utterly hoodwinked by a Warne delivery, would not have made so obvious to the umpires his distaste for the action, even after his rival Ponting had been advised that he had to proceed without his pacemen - Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Shaun Tait.

He might have said, "no thank you, gentlemen, I want to win these Ashes in the purest way... I believe in my players, my ability to deliver this famous triumph out here on the field and not in the pavilion looking out on an empty field, it is something I owe to cricket". Vaughan could have said that, but only in the certainty that he would have been laughed to scorn all the way from Kennington, this place of stygian gloom, to the early spring sunshine of Bondi Beach.

No, Vaughan made the cold, professional decision - as he had to - in the way Ponting did when he twice accepted the offer of bad light as Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden so superbly laid the foundations of what seemed, with reasonable conditions, a rock-hard foundation for victory. This was neither Vaughan nor Ponting's tragedy, but cricket's.

Why? Because everything that had gone before, demanded, emotionally at least, more than this wearisome ritual of retreating players and hollow triumphalism. In one of their wittier phases, the Barmy Army sang, "We're singing in the Rain, it's a glorious feeling and we're happy again."

Glorious was though, plainly, the wrong word. If the Ashes do fall to England today, as both the odds and natural justice say they should, it will unfortunately do little to take away the sense that much of this final Test has been a perversion of what has gone on before.

However, the grace, and the brilliance and humour of the players of both sides survived, with heart- warming force. Ponting and his men came into the last session of play wearing sunglasses, sardonic cricketers playing the Blues Brothers for comic effect. It brought plenty of smiles, but they were of a rather shallow kind.

It was, after all, nothing so much as laughter in the dark.