James Lawton: Heavyweight fighter Flintoff fails to land the knockout blows

Some of the greatest fights take a little time to build, there are rounds not so easy to score and then there is the moment when one of the combatants decides to raise the pace – and the stakes.

But he is obliged not to overreach himself. He has to get it right because, if he doesn't, suddenly the balance of power and confidence has shifted quite dramatically – and maybe decisively.

Unfortunately, the hero of all England, Andrew Flintoff, didn't get it right in the soft late afternoon sunshine and when he went, the victim of a suddenly rampant Mitchell Johnson and the nonchalance of his own shot, his team were again against the ropes. Flintoff, we know, is a champion, but his sense of the team and its needs is not always paramount and here something rather different was expected from him than a 22-minute, 19-ball cameo which gleaned just seven runs.

At the other end England's latest South African mercenary, 28-year-old Jonathan Trott, was making a rather better stab at resisting the idea that Australia's grip on the Ashes was tightening as relentlessly as it did in the fourth Test match in Leeds. But the man from Cape Town, who had been given his first cap in a Test match whose importance may well never be matched in the rest of his career, was entitled to expect a little sturdier support from someone who has, more or less, elected himself as the guardian of his nation's hopes.

In a farewell speech to Test cricket Flintoff had declared that he had developed the ambition to become the best player in the Twenty20 circus. It seemed, somehow, inappropriate at a time when he was more properly engaged in the most serious contest in the true form of the game in which he has waxed so celebrated and wealthy.

However, such are the priorities of modern cricket and for the enthralled crowd here there was only the sadness of seeing their hero produce a shot he might have kept under wraps for the pyjama game. Instead he produced it quite airily for Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin to collect a scalp far more significant than any of its owner's batting statistics would say.

Flintoff came here as England most vaunted strike bowler but it was reasonable to hope, after England's chronically misfiring key batsmen had found a bizarre new collection of ways to surrender their wickets, that he would bring a little weight as well as panache to a vital phase. England's hopes of building a fortress of a first innings, on a wicket plainly – whatever you hear officially – doctored to produce a result, ebbed with each new disaster.

Captain Andrew Strauss met the challenge with initial brilliance as he worked with composure and moments of pure class to another half-century, but the pressure he has been under since the embarrassing debacle in Leeds earlier this month was redoubled when he edged the splendidly consistent Ben Hilfenhaus into Haddin's gloves.

Strauss's challenge in the wake of the Kevin Pietersen captaincy farce seemed to be within a blessed touching distance when he moved with such assurance to build a match-shaping innings. He did it with magnificent application across the river at Lord's last month and there were some reassuring reminders of that masterful effort, not least when he cut the most successful of Australia's bowlers in the first assault, Peter Siddle, for a geometrically perfect boundary.

Strauss, though, lost his concentration and when he did the historic old ground, which experienced such jubilation four years ago when the Ashes were so briefly regained, heaved a huge collective sigh.

The truth is well known, after all. After the captain, and in the absence of Pietersen, England are without any kind of certainty. Paul Collingwood, who went cheaply again, has dwindled dismayingly without the presence of the South African. Despite the gallantry of his top-scoring 72, Ian Bell at times looked hauntingly overpromoted at No 3. One moment he unfurled a beautiful shot. The next he laid bare his deepest vulnerabilities with one that reeked of neurosis.

If things had turned out differently, Bell might have indeed been seen as a man who rallied to one of English cricket's most critical hours. As it was, however, he had ultimately failed to build the big innings upon which England's hopes of the win that would bring the Ashes home depended so vitally.

Still, there was the promise of Trott, the competitive instinct of Matt Prior and the lurking reassurance of the big man Flintoff.

Trott looked like a serious proposition indeed after riding some early good fortune and scoring 41 before being brilliantly run out by Simon Katich. Prior's lazily lofted shot was caught easily by Shane Watson.

The Australians, whose major challenge once captain Ricky Ponting lost the toss for the fourth time, was to restrict England to less than 400, were closing down the ring once more, not as ferociously as at Headlingley, but with the same canvas-consuming pressure.

Flintoff might just do something, of course. It was a thought for many in the ground as warming as the sun. When he came to the wicket the ground rose to its feet. This is more than a cricketer, this is a spirit, a live piece of optimism, an idea that all will turn out well enough in the end.

Such sentiment accompanied each one of his giant strides to the wicket, and for a little while there was some reason to understand why this was so. Johnson, warming to the incentive of knocking over the hero of England, sent one delivery smashing into the grill of Flintoff's helmet. But then, of course, few batsmen have ever been less likely to be intimidated by such an assault.

Flintoff chipped a four so easily he might have had a junior wedge lodged in one mighty fist. It was a flash of that kind of irresistible power he produced in a superb knock of 74 at Edgbaston in the third Test. It was the gesture of a man who could do anything. At least that was the belief before it was revealed as an illusion – a particularly cruel one in all the fraught circumstances of dwindling hope.

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