James Lawton: Watson shows our Ashes gladiator how to handle his precious talent with care

Freddie looked like a man coming to terms with the fact he was at the end of something

Up on the haunting coast of South Ayrshire, you swore that nothing would ever be more poignant in sport than the sight of Tom Watson exhausting the last of his re-incarnated brilliance.

Yet a few hours later Freddie Flintoff achieved the unlikely spectacle at Lord's.

He provided both gunfire and pathos. He did what the Australians most feared and, in a way, so did we. He told us not only what he still was, which is to say a cricketer of phenomenal power and aura, but also what he might have been.

He might have been as great, deep down, over the years, battle-by-battle great, as Tom Watson.

He might have been not just a storm which can whip up and cause destruction but one which blows hardly without respite – as did that of the man he was suppose to emulate, Sir Ian Botham.

Like Watson, Flintoff gave us glory these last few days, the kind that welled out of him so magnificently in the great summer of 2005, but he also bestowed some of the bone-deep regret that accompanied the 59-year-old American home yesterday, when his artificial hip triggered the alarm system at the airport and the security guards waved him through with one of the most genuine renderings of the Scottish exhortation, "Haste Ye Back."

Fortunately that could be said to Watson because not the least of his astounding achievements at the 138th Open was to force the Royal and Ancient Golf Club into a serious re-think of its arbitrary decision to deny a place to a champion when he reaches the age of 60.

Sadly, we cannot say Haste Ye Back to Freddie Flintoff.

He is going from Test cricket not because of a committee room decision but, partly at least, because of the nature of the life he led before yesterday's epic farewell to Lord's, when his five Australian wickets ensured the ultimate measurement of cricket success at the headquarters of the game – a place on the honours board of bowlers to go along with the one he had already achieved as a batsman with a century against the South Africans.

Here, surely, we had poignancy for a natural-born hero at the age of 31.

We also had the over-riding need of England's impressively emerging captain Andrew Strauss to continue to put up the guards against hubris, as he appeared to be doing late on Sunday afternoon when he gathered his team together on the field and said that over the last few years too many opportunities had been allowed to slide away, and that this one, with the Aussies rising from their knees, could not be another.

He might have been speaking directly to yesterday's hero because if anyone provided evidence that English cricket for too long has been a story of too much self-congratulation and not enough gut-deep commitment it is surely the big man who was so awesome when the Ashes were won back four years ago and who on a diamond bright morning became the spirit of the effort to re-kindle that level of achievement in the next few weeks.

When Flintoff raised his arms above his head, and then grabbed a wicket as a piece of tangible evidence that he once was one of the most influential cricketers in the world, something he may require himself to be reminded of when the last splurge of big earnings is completed in the tragi-comic pantomime of Twenty20, he looked like a man who more than anything was coming to terms with the fact that he was indeed at the end of something.

Something unforgettable, yes, but in its way sadder even than Old Tom Watson's realisation he had almost certainly explored his last opportunity for greatness.

Sadder because Watson could tell himself that by certain sacrifices, which included the glorious taste of single malt Scotch, at a mature age he had given himself one last chance to announce a talent that had made him, in the first rush of his life, one of his sport's greatest performers.

It is true that if Flintoff can maintain the impact he had at Lord's, and can prove a vital factor in the winning of two Ashes series, he will have done a considerable amount towards adjusting the necessarily harsh judgement that too much of the provenance of his natural ability has been wasted.

But then he cannot say something that was within the unique power of Watson when he watched his compatriot Stewart Cink pick up the Claret Jug which less than an hour earlier had been just eight feet away.

He cannot say that he had cherished to the last of his physical powers the gifts that were so plainly his when he won the Kansas City Men's Match-play title at the age of 14. He cannot say that long after the strongest of his rivals had retired from the battle he was still able to come within touching distance of one of the greatest prizes.

Freddie Flintoff has run his course too quickly, too recklessly, to be able to say that and maybe some of the problem lies with his mentor, Botham.

Not, this is, in some of the advice offered by the man with whom he was so relentlessly compared, but in the impossible example he set. Impossible because if at times Botham was no less undisciplined than the youth who was required to carry the burden of that comparison, he was also a beast of resilient physical strength. The giant frame of Flintoff has been more fragile – and so has his psyche.

When Botham advised Flintoff to forget his critics, to leave their complaints at the bottom of the glass drained of the Alka Seltzer, he may have thought he was addressing himself. He wasn't. He was talking to someone different, more vulnerable and now we see the extent of what has been lost in Flintoff's failure to hoard the triumphs that nature had put so easily within his reach.

Never has this been more so, surely, than when the Australians were consumed by a Flintoff playing not just for a highly charged moment but for some of the meaning of a career which, he is likely only to underline in the course of his last Test series, has been too brief, too fragmented.

That particular regret at least was not included in the baggage of Tom Watson yesterday. It couldn't be because before he became a memory, one which came to life with a mystical force – he kept calling it "spiritual" at Turnberry – he had, with eight major tournaments, won more than all but five other golfers – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player.

There was also the mystery of his special ability to play in the kind of conditions which last Friday so undermined the Tiger, indisputably the greatest golfer who ever lived. When Nicklaus confessed to having tears in his eyes at the weekend while watching Watson's astonishing performance, it was easy to remember a 30-year-old incident at the great man's own Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.

Nicklaus came in from shooting a superb level par round in something that seemed uncomfortably close to a typhoon and announced, with all due modesty, that in the circumstances no-one could shoot better. He then squinted at the scoreboard and saw red numbers against someone's name. "That's impossible, who shot 69?" said the Golden Bear. "Watson," he was told, laconically.

"Ah, Watson," he said. "That's different. I suppose that it is the kind of thing he would do in my backyard."

Two years earlier he had done it in the fabled "Duel in the Sun" in Turnberry, where Nicklaus had confessed it was the first time he had been beaten while producing his best.

So why wouldn't Jack Nicklaus weep for what Tom Watson still was when he came so close to winning another major tournament, 26 years after winning his last? Why wouldn't he weep with emotion at the evidence that a talent so sharp, so natural, and so beautifully cared for, had survived the wind and the sun and the rain and all the disappointment that in any golfer's life will inevitably come more regularly than the taste of success?

The tears that some may have shed for Freddie Flintoff yesterday were no doubt different and more complicated but they were no less wrapped up in the glory and the pain of sport.

They were, after all, to do with the brevity of any man's gifts. However long Tom Watson's keeps his, it will, after all, be only a matter of degree.

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