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.

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
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

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home