James Lawton: Light touch of Strauss turns hosts into heroes
Monday 24 August 2009
Some people say Test cricket is dying, that it is a time-expired casualty of a new sports culture, but, believe it or not, you couldn't find a single one of them in the long shadows here last night.
Not when the Ashes were regained by England for the second time in four years and old heroes like Freddie Flintoff and Steve Harmison contrived for one last time, certainly for Flintoff and perhaps Harmison, to grab the nation at a most emotional place.
Flintoff quite beautifully threw down the wicket of the man always most likely to frustrate England, the eternally pugnacious Australian captain Ricky Ponting, and then stood in what now has become a trademarked pose – the warrior taking his acclaim.
On this occasion The Oval responded down to each last man, woman and child. It rose because it knew now that however obdurate the Australian opposition, for however long the resilient Mike Hussey strung out his resistance as he fought his way to his 10th Test century against the most onerous odds he had ever faced, there was a tide running in England's favour that could hardly be repulsed.
Not only did Andrew Strauss's team win, they offered the gloriously unanswerable evidence that this is indeed the form of cricket, of all of sport if you like, of which you can least confidently chart its astonishing intrigue.
Two weeks ago England were the dead men of this historic series. Not only were they beaten at Headingley in the fourth Test and required to win here to prise back the Ashes, they had produced a performance of such limp application and abandoned technique that some of us thought the Australians would find only pockets of resistance here these last few days.
Not only did Australia have the superior momentum, they also had troops much more readily battled-hardened, players who openly scorned England's heavy reliance on the cult of personality that surrounded Flintoff.
Here these last few days they were something quite different and last night the Aussies, fair dinkum, were prepared to own up to an extraordinary transformation in their opponents. Though Ponting was clearly mortified by the fact that for a second time he has lost the Ashes on Pommy soil, he nursed his bruised mouth – where he received the cricket ball with some force on Saturday while fielding at short leg – and admitted that the English had come through the more strongly in the end.
The Oval pitch was poor, he said, but it did not affect the result. What affected the result was the superior commitment and performance of England and Ponting reserved his highest praise for his opposite number, Strauss, the captain who had led his team away from absolute confusion at the start of the year.
Then the reigning captain Kevin Pietersen was in open warfare with the England coach and on the point of being fired, but Strauss swore that he could build a new ethos, a new sense of team.
It didn't quite work out in the Caribbean, where England struggled so badly against the West Indies. And in Leeds earlier this month it seemed that Strauss might be the victim of another meltdown in the classic values of a winning team.
Flintoff's insistence that he was fit to play in the fourth Test and the subsequent acrid atmosphere created by the remarks of his agent Chubby Chandler that he had wanted to put his injured body – and possibly entire cricketing future – on the line for England, had been misguidedly rejected, which seemed to be a major breaking point.
There were other charges. England's middle order batsmen Ravi Bopara, Ian Bell, and Paul Collingwood had lost their nerve – and the whole team had lost their way.
But that was before Strauss re-gathered his troops, said that Flintoff would be asked to make one last joust with destiny and that the batting line-up might indeed benefit from the Cape Town-reared Jonathan Trott.
Here yesterday we saw the triumph of regained nerve and ambition and, perhaps most bracing of all, an overwhelming sense that Strauss had, from the verge of disaster, rescued his team.
His batting had been the underpinning of England from the moment they escaped almost certain defeat in the first Test in Cardiff. He was the hugely influential force at Lord's with a fine century and here at The Oval he led the team with a consistent bite and, perhaps just as crucially, a certain humour.
Just as Strauss released Flintoff for his supreme triumph at Lord's in the second Test, here he gave 23-year-old Stuart Broad his head, bowled him at the heart of the Australian batting line-up and maybe, just maybe, may have put in place the natural successor to the man whose all-round qualities were not always as consistent as the meaning of his nature and his aggressive personality. Last night Strauss was quick to indicate that there would be little of the triumphalism that swept through the team in the wake of the 2005 success. "I imagine the celebrations will be quite subdued," said the winning captain who may not have to echo the speech of his predecessor Michael Vaughan.
Vaughan said that England couldn't run away with the belief that because they had beaten Australia in one series they had become invincible overnight. They had to stay honest. In the last of the sunshine here such a statement from Strauss might have been somewhat gratuitous. England had, after all, found their way to victory, which seemed a formality on Saturday when the Australians were asked to reach the mountainous total of 546.
An impossible task, most everyone said, but with the Australians you can never be sure. Ponting, despite his wounded mouth, batted with classic application for 66 runs until he was fired back to the pavilion by Flintoff's superb throw.
In the end England tore at the Australian resistance, claiming as their last victim the obdurate veteran Mike Hussey. The man from Western Australia who was known as Mr Cricket until a recent slump in form suggested his days in big-time cricket were numbered, scratched and battled his way to his 10th century and while he was there, and such century makers as Michael Clarke, Marcus North and Brad Haddin, were still around, England couldn't believe absolutely in their triumph.
Yet in the final strides there was a sudden surge of English blood – and the irresistible conviction that they were not to be denied. The last five Australian wickets fell for a mere 21 runs. Flintoff's arms were raised to the sky, so were those of Harmison, his old and often embattled friend. Elements of the old England had triumphed again but with, it is not too idle to presume, perhaps a new hard instinct – and leadership.
The greatest cheers went to Flintoff, inevitably, but if he was the hero still there was no doubt about the man who had done most to make it all happen. It was Strauss, the new captain, the new force.
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