James Lawton: Flintoff's flaming ambition defies Australians' savage pressure

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The Independent Online

In the circumstances it is not so much, heaven knows, but whatever else English cricket lacked here in the first two days of a Test that might have been devised by the Marquis de Sade it has not been a heroic image.

How could it be? England may be marching to hell in terms of what was conceived as a courageous defence of the Ashes they won so gloriously just 14 months ago but no one has got round to mentioning this to their captain, Andrew Flintoff.

It may also be true that however long he does the job Flintoff will never be mistaken for cricket's answer to Machiavelli. But then if you want something to salvage pride from a battlefield that now seems certain to be the scene of a crushing defeat born of English ineptitudes with both the ball and the bat - for alongside Steve Harmison's haplessly misguided opening salvo we must now place the disastrously weak-minded pull shot of the vice-captain Andrew Strauss - it is the sight of Flintoff bearing down on the brilliant Australian batsman Michael Hussey.

The situation could scarcely have been more desperate. Australia were were 407 for 3 and if Hussey's companion, Ricky Ponting, had been described by every morning newspaper as the new Bradman, and was continuing to play to such a wild order, the 31-year-old left-hander who waited so long for the call to glory, and came into this huge match with a Test average of 75.93, was in no mood to be outshone by any cricketer alive. He was playing shots of ravishing composure. If England's misfiring bowlers threw him a scrap, he would turn it into a banquet. His driving was hitting geometric perfection.

He was 86 not out and it seemed that he had only to reach out for another century. But there steaming in was Flintoff, who in the last 24 hours must have felt more than once that in being asked to put out so many fires he was tackling the Blitz with little more than a single water bucket. But however dire his situation on a cricket field - we know now - the recently installed captain of England remains a glorious sight. Perhaps it was that which brought the first cloud of doubt to Hussey. The delivery, anyway, was perfect and the new Australian star's wickets were shattered.

Nothing in England's performance had touched such intensity - and maybe it would not do so again as the Australian attack, led by the perennially cunning Glenn McGrath, cruelly applied pressure to batsmen obliged to contemplate the mountainous scale of the challenge set them by Ponting - 602 for 9 declared. McGrath lured Strauss into his fatal shot, had young Alistair Cook jabbing nervously and terminally into the slips and when Paul Collingwood was outwitted by the stand-in paceman Stuart Clark, England had crashed to 42 for 3.

It meant two things. One was that two young players of bounding reputation, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, had to place alongside their undoubted talent displays of that special character which come not in the flush of glory but the obligation to fight until the last hope is gone. That was vital to the recently soaring name of the English game - so was the need for the 10 players who take the field with Flintoff to provide him with fitting company.

This in some ways is no doubt the harshest of assessments. But maybe it is also inevitable in the ferocious climate of a cricket arena where Australia have never been known to take prisoners and where currently their old but magnificently committed team are fighting perhaps as never before to re-establish, perhaps for just one last time, that they are simply the best in the world.

By winning the Ashes so brilliantly in England in the summer of 2005 England elected themselves to judgement only in these terms. They had their parade through London, they had their book launches, and they had their tribute for a job magnificently done.

Now they have to live - or die in terms of reputation - with the consequences of such elevation in the public the mind.

In Australia, for 14 months the failure of Ponting and his men to defend the Ashes successfully has not been a matter for passing reproof. It has been the cause of nothing less than excoriation. The result has plainly caught England by surprise. They have been caught by a ferocity of ambition that was perfectly expressed by McGrath after his latest assault on their already shredded confidence. "We just want to nail home our advantage now," the 36-year-old master paceman said. "We want to remind everyone that we are still the best."

Such force of self-belief, for the moment at least, has left just one Englishman unfazed. It is of course the hero of that summer now dwindling so fast in the public mind. It is Andrew Flintoff still locked in the battle which changed his life. If you look closely at his performance over the first two days here you can only be dazzled by the force of his will. He claimed the wickets of the openers Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden and, after sending back a Hussey committed to new levels of carnage, he also cut short the happily spectacular life of the tail-ender Clark, who twice smote James Anderson for six.

Some have responded better than others to such leadership. Matthew Hoggard, who has known heroics of his own, looked set for a tour of relentless pain on a first day of shocking pressure and failure of impact. But on the second, he fought back, claiming the wickets of the masterful Ponting and an Adam Gilchrist still fighting to find his old blistering touch. Hoggard is the one who has most notably responded to the Flintoff banner.

He earned the praise of his captain despite a challenge so daunting most embattled leaders would have sought the shadows at least until the outcome of their trial, Flintoff said that the fight would be re-engaged with maximum force. He was not disappointed with his troops. He still believed in the strength of their hearts.

Meanwhile, the Australians believed that they were closing for a quick and utterly decisive kill. They have convinced themselves and most independent observers. But not, of course, Flintoff and they are canny enough to know that until they do, not everything can quite be taken for granted. Right now it is the one small but unextinguishable light of English cricket.