James Lawton: One man shoulders hopes of halting Ponting's men

Many of his own countrymen believe Flintoff can wipe away the memory of Headingley
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Andrew Flintoff retains, for one last Test, the ability to make history. If he didn't, we could leave England to a dismal fate at The Oval today with an even greater certainty. However, if he can still make it, he cannot rewrite it.

This, you have to believe, is what he attempts with his declaration that an Ashes-winning victory over the next few days would surpass the achievements of 2005.

It wouldn't. It cannot because what happened four years ago was one of the great passages of summer sport.

That was about a team in which Flintoff was so potent producing a body of work that spoke of tremendous fight and consistency against the best side in the world, a force filled with cricketers of the quality of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting.

It wasn't some lunge at redemption, the kind which England are attempting with a lot more hope than calculation today.

When England were lacerated by the sheer class of McGrath in the first Test at Lord's in 2005, after a mighty effort from their bowlers, notably Steve Harmison, it was hard to offer a bad penny in their support at the betting window.

Michael Vaughan, the captain, admitted that if the second Test hadn't gone England's way in the extraordinary fine finish at Edgbaston, he would have been in charge of an utterly broken team. Instead of which, he found himself marching into cricket history at the head of a wonderfully committed unit.

Now a win at The Oval would produce redemption for the pitiful effort at Headingley but it would not disguise the fact that this has been a horribly botched campaign – as far away from the sustained effort and the professionalism of four years ago as it was possible to stray.

Indeed the collapse at Headingley, partly created, we learnt later, by the uncertainty of England's collective mind that came with Flintoff's impassioned claim that he should play while palpably far from true fitness, has surely become a model of how not to prepare for a vital Test match. In the wake of England's triumphal reaction to the 2005 win, Vaughan pleaded for his team to understand that it should just be the beginnings of a new era of the English game, a time when to beat the Australians was not seen as a miracle but the result of hard work and a grown-up understanding of the demands of top-class competition.

"We must stay honest," declared Vaughan. As it turned out he might have been merely mumbling in the dregs of an unbridled binge.

This is history now, of course, but it should not be the subject of Flintoff revision, however hard he serves his own legend going into his last run at the most important form of the game, to which he has brought so much talent and natural flair for heroics.

Of his career – which for more objective witnesses has surely brought some regrets among all the glory – he says that it has been a privilege and that he wouldn't have done anything differently. This begs serious questions, not least about some of the priorities he has displayed in the years where his sometimes astonishing powers were reduced not only by chronic injuries but some grave examples of a lack of that discipline which is generally the hallmark of long, great careers. Flintoff, though, has made his own mark in his own turbulent fashion and it says much about his place in the hearts of his countrymen that so many of them today believe he can wipe away the memory of Headingley largely off his own bat and ball.

Unfortunately the Flintoff script, even when you recall his superb contribution to the second Test triumph at Lord's, and his brilliant knock at Edgbaston, is for some hard-headed observers, not least the Australians, somewhat detached from current reality. Flintoff may be right when he says that he is much stronger than at any point since his Lord's spectacular. However, the same is surely true of his opponents. Allan Border, who led the Australians so brilliantly away from years of failure, believes that England, and Flintoff, have fired their best shots and are now done, desperate after the meltdown in Leeds and quite beyond the resuscitation promised by their great hero.

While England seem to rely more heavily than ever on the power of their talisman, and the possibility that Jonathan Trott's introduction to Test cricket in a match of immense importance and pressure will not prove another killing miscalculation, Ponting's team have the reassurance that comes when faith in sure-fire talent has been vindicated.

The Australians believe that their green, embattled team has ripened to the point where Stuart Clark, such a major player in England's first innings collapse at Headingley, can be returned to the margins in the light of the progress made by Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle and the need for the spin of Nathan Hauritz. They also show every sign of again resisting the claims of their own time-expired superhero, Brett Lee.

This makes a chilling comparison with the embarrassing hysteria that gripped so much of English cricket when Ravi Bopara wilted again under the pressure of coming in first wicket down. Mark Ramprakash and Marcus Trescothick were put through an ordeal of fevered speculation, only to see Ian Bell, just marginally sturdier in his resistance than Bopara, pushed up the order.

The result has been inevitable. The most significant momentum belongs to Australia. It is they who have come through the fire with most reason to believe in themselves.

But then of course there is Flintoff, reinventing himself for the last time as a great Test player. Clearly, he believes he can still make all the difference in the world. He believed that at Headingley, despite the most oppressive medical evidence to the contrary, and so naturally he is sure of it once again. In his own eyes, and much of England's, he is still history's big bouncing boy.

It is the most beguiling of prospects – and why The Oval will be filled with English hope today. The Australians, however, bring something else. It is the confidence that comes with the sense that the big battle of will has been won, that this little bit of Ashes history has already been shaped.

History's bouncing boy? More like its orphan, the Aussies say. It is not so easy to disagree.