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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Sport
David Silva strokes home his and City's second goal
football
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas