James Lawton: Flintoff smashes his way to a place in the pantheon of true cricketing greats

The second Test was epic in almost every possible way and so whatever else the big man from Lancashire achieves in his explosive career it is hard to believe that he will surpass the influence he exerted in the most important English triumph in 18 years of Ashes cricket.

Australia's captain Ricky Ponting framed Flintoff's effort quite perfectly. "It was stand-and-deliver cricket from start to finish," he said, and what did that make Flintoff? It made him Dick Turpin and Ned Kelly rolled into one. As a batsman he was herculean. As a bowler he was awash with adrenalin and bad intentions. Indeed, he was so good, so overpowering in both his talent and his will, he took away any fear in applying the B-word burden that has bedevilled every aspiring English all-rounder through all the barren years.

Yes, of all the splendid things he was over three days and slightly less than two hours of play that did nothing less than define the often savage beauty and intrigue of Test cricket, Flintoff was Bothamesque in the scale of his effect.

Even now, with the milestone of a truly great performance gloriously passed, Flintoff is unlikely to warm to the comparison. He is on the record saying that his ambition is to be the first Flintoff, not the second Botham, but sometimes sporting history leaps out from the mothballs to make an unanswerable point.

Here it said that Flintoff has the supreme gift of a Botham and all the great all-rounders.

He can shape the mood and the outline of cricket's ultimate investigator of the highest talent, the Test match, and that he did it to this extraordinary one to such a degree means that he has set himself a standard of quite awesome proportions.

In the first innings he galvanised England with outrageous sixes in his 68, in the second he added with Simon Jones the 50 runs that stacked the odds hugely against the Australians, and then, when those odds were met with great control and confidence, ripped them apart. The deliveries that swept away Justin Langer, Australia's anchorman opener, and Ponting were the kind of shattering blows that in a heavyweight title fight announce that one man is heading inexorably to victory.

Another dramatic measuring of his impact here: only one member of the world champion Australian team was a serious rival for man of one of the greatest Test matches of all time. That was the working legend Shane Warne, who with Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz took Australia so agonisingly close to what would have been the most staggering Ashes recovery since Botham and Bob Willis struck back at Headingley in 1981.

Warne produced fiendish deliveries as he attempted to fill some of the void left by Glenn McGrath's mishap in the warm-up last Thursday morning. He was the supreme example of Australia's defiance of defeat and, as at Lord's in the first Test, he exerted a mesmerising power over key England batsmen. But not Flintoff. He was untameable. He was on his own, a wild and untrammelled spirit that was accompanied by the power to execute with deadly precision. He was a force of nature, a whirlwind presence.

Without that power, the improvement of English mettle from the first Test would no doubt have served them well. Kevin Pietersen showed again that his talent and his nerve come from an extremely deep well. Ashley Giles abandoned his training as a potential agony aunt and reverted to his role as hard-headed pro with conspicuous success. Given the scrappiness of much of his work behind the stumps, Geraint Jones showed stunning resolve to take the match-winning catch.

Harmison claimed that wicket, and produced a spurt of brilliantly conceived deliveries to remove the dangerous Michael Clarke at the end of the third day. But would England have fashioned this most vital, historic victory without the momentum Flintoff supplied at such hugely pivotal moments? It is hard to imagine.

Yesterday, with the victory gathered in under the most oppressive pressure, Flintoff admitted that the meaning of the defeat, and the nature of it, at Lord's had bitten into him deeply. He went home in a mood of the sharpest reflection and self-examination. If England had any chance of the Ashes, it had to come from the willingness of the players to look at their own performances and maybe some of their attitudes.

The results of such scourging were luminous here. This was an England team which refused to collapse, which was ready to fight to the last wicket, the last shot, and Ponting was generous in his reaction. "It was a Test match in every sense of the term," said the Australian captain, "and England deserve praise for the effort. We got close, but not close enough."

What he didn't say - but you could read it easily enough in his eyes and the body language of his players - was that few Australian teams will have carried quite the motivational baggage that will be taken to Old Trafford for the third Test on Thursday. The English victory may have been by a mere two runs, but in the end that was an insignificant detail. Indeed, never had the old mantra of the great American football coach Vince Lombardi rang truer than when England captain Michael Vaughan asked his men for one last push at midday yesterday. Lombardi told his players that winning wasn't the most important thing, it was the only thing.

Vaughan confirmed that such a sentiment blazed at the centre of his thoughts as Warne, Lee and Kasprowicz inched towards their target and a crowd which for three whole days had been in a fever of excitement became clammy with tension.

Nodding soberly, Vaughan agreed that there would probably have been no coming back from a second straight defeat, and especially in what would have been such demoralising circumstances. Winning, however it was finally achieved, was the difference between belief and a sad resignation that perhaps the other team were simply too strong in both their range of talent and their conviction.

Now England believe. They believe that maybe they can shake off their chains at the highest level. You could see some of that in the ferocious hugging of Harmison when the final Australian wicket fell. It was more than mere celebration of a great victory. It was a release from sport's most demoralising fear, the one that says whatever you do you will not find a way to win.

At Old Trafford the Australians will no doubt produce everything they have to reimpose such pessimism. They will plunder their collective memory for every edge. Every weapon in one of sport's most formidable armouries will be brought out. But for once they will not carry the old guarantees. The problem is that England do now truly believe - in themselves, and, most of all, in Andrew Flintoff.

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