James Lawton: Light touch of Strauss turns hosts into heroes

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.

News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel: