James Lawton: Flintoff shows shades of 2005 but England are taught a lesson
Friday 10 July 2009
In the warmest glow of Ashes anticipation there was one consistent source of English optimism. While the Australians were haunted by the ghosts of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, England had the stronger, more balanced attack.
The better attack, did we say? Not yesterday, at least not anywhere but in our dreams.
Not when the Aussies gnawed back into the first Test in their most bloody-minded mode, ticking off the runs deficit like infantrymen counting the miles, shrugging their shoulders and then simply marching on.
It's not true England didn't have any kind of attack, though that had to be the prevailing view for long stretches of the most unyielding Aussie attrition. England did have an attack but it wasn't balanced or subtle or capable of being redirected at any vital point of the taut proceedings.
England's attack, when it came right down to it, was Andrew Flintoff.
His first over – after a lunch in which England had been celebrating the depth and the class of the tail-end batting of Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad – was everything that England's performance lacked in the formative stages of day two of a Test which will inevitably define certain strengths and weaknesses likely to shape the rest of the summer.
It was the Flintoff of 2005, four years on, creakier in the joints, perhaps, one even reflecting maybe that the ordeal of five-day Test cricket is beginning to be a stretch too far at the age of 31, but authentic Flintoff without a moment of doubt.
Flintoff's first mission of the day couldn't have been simpler – or more brutal. He had to undermine the 20-year-old Australian batting prodigy Phillip Hughes, move on with the softening-up process which his friend Steve Harmison started in Worcester last week.
He did it with such ferocious intent that though Hughes survived all six deliveries with a mixture of nerve and good footwork, there was an inevitability about the fall of the New South Walian who made such an impact on his first tour in South Africa.
Hughes has astonishing hand-eye coordination and a technique which some experts believe will require serious modification if he is to stay the course as a serious Test performer. Yesterday a flurry of fours, punched through the offside, dried up utterly when Flintoff sent down his stream of 90mph deliveries.
When Hughes could only get an inside edge to the last ball of Flintoff's fourth over Matt Prior, the England wicketkeeper who earns most of his plaudits at the batting crease, made an excellent catch.
It was a one-two combination which challenged the Australian belief that in Hughes they have an authentic beneficiary of the brilliant bloodline which has recently drained from their Test team. There was another possibility. It was that emboldened England, buoyed by that fine pre-lunch batting of Swann and Broad which brought the first innings total to a relatively healthy 435, would generate fresh aggression in that department where they were supposed to have an edge.
The idea looked a lot prettier before Ricky Ponting and Simon Katich began to grind the life out of English bowling hearts. England captain Andrew Strauss kept sending in the old warrior Flintoff and each time he responded with rippling pace, but there were were no longer possibilities of intimidation.
Ponting, who flawlessly moved to his 38th century – his eighth against England, taking him past the 11,000-run mark – has played so many captain's innings that the description on this occasion seems somewhat redundant. However, he had gone 10 innings without a century, which for him is a journey deeper into inhospitable bush than he ever imagined making, and when he brought this 100 up in the last over it was easy to see how much it meant. It was almost as much perhaps, as the fact that the team who inflicted that shaming Ashes defeat four years were on the point of being broken.
Ponting and Katich, 34 and 33 respectively, played the swing and pace of James Anderson and Broad with growing ease, and if Swann and Monty Panesar were expected to outbowl Australia's much scorned replacement for Shane Warne, Nathan Hauritz, the reality was harsh indeed.
While Hauritz, albeit with extravagant help from the victim, claimed the wicket of Kevin Pietersen along with those of Panesar and nightwatchman Anderson, neither Swann nor Panesar ever managed to get the upper-hand, though the former could claim that he was unlucky not to get Katich lbw. That, though, was considerably less than expected of the confident Nottinghamshire man who has bowled himself into the prime spinner's role for an England team which now must painfully revise confidence in its ability to break down a batting line-up that seemed to stretch out interminably as first Katich, then Ponting beat the shadows to the century marks.
Here, again, we had evidence of the Australian belief that no game is beyond their powers of recovery. All you have to do is dig deep into available resources, and maintain the belief that when it comes to fighting only extremely rarely does anyone do it better.
From Ponting and Katich we had some of the most compelling of recent evidence and when Katich, not known for the flamboyance of his style, on one occasion effortlessly stroked Flintoff through the covers there was a terrible sense that the oldest enemy indeed remained in formidable fighting order.
From the captain and his experienced lieutenant it was a hard lesson for England, one that could only reverberate in the head of Pietersen, who on Wednesday, around about the time the Australians were beginning to squeeze the life out of England, threw away his wicket. No doubt England's most talented batsman would have given much to have reclaimed that negligent moment last night.
That couldn't happen but for England something even more valuable could. They could reach a new agreement that the collapse of Australian cricket strength was an encouraging but utterly baseless rumour.
Bumble's Twittering: Who ate all the pie, Beefy?
David Lloyd has created a cult hit with his Twitter blog ( www.twitter.com/bumblecricket). Here's a sample of his tweets yesterday, as an insight into the world of Bumble:
* Arrived at ground. Listened to Inspiral Carpets Saturn 5 and DOSE & Mark E Smith Plug Myself In in car on way. In't life grand...
* Brilliant effort England. What have you got Australia?
* Pie from BBC just arrived. Beefy has eaten 9/10ths of it
* Here are lunches (tin foil & plastic spoon). Lamb or chicken curry or lentil dhal... Nas & Ath curry. Dhal for me. Beefy cheese & onion sarnie
* Lovely cheese and onion sandwiches have arrived. Sir Ian seems to be guarding them. But I have used distraction tactic to pinch one
* England need to break this partnership. Aus looking ominous. Off to get Nasser a coffee
* In the pub last night. Full of Welsh lads. Great people. Love a sing song. Terrific fun
* Back on commentary now with the big man. He should be bowling. Who's guarding the sarnies?
* Does the incoming tide make the ball swing? That is the question. No one can answer. Stupid or science, you decide. Some say it's the gravitational pull of the moon. I think it's something to do with Stonehenge.
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