Peter Roebuck: A colossus last time, Flintoff has been a marginal figure
Friday 29 December 2006
England have been unable to withstand an onslaught from a motivated team determined to mount one last great campaign. As a result, an eagerly awaited contest between supposedly well-matched sides has turned into a debacle. To watch the Champions Trophy was to encounter Englishmen unaware of the task they faced against an opponent strengthened by the emergence of Michael Hussey and an improved pace attack. Australia had learnt from their loss in 2005 and ever since had been playing formidable cricket.
Of course the gap between the sides has been exaggerated. Nothing much has gone the underdogs' way. Defeat has many fathers. Nevertheless, England have played feebly. Over the last few days the teams might have been playing on different pitches. England's batsmen prodded suspiciously as the ball moved around and occasionally crept. Previously the Australians had whacked the ball around with increasing abandon.
Inevitably, the captains have been in the spotlight. Heavily criticised in 2005, Ricky Ponting's judgement of players and field placements have been rewarded. Andrew Symonds responded to his support with a rousing innings. Likewise, the Australian captain's willingness to goad Brett Lee inspired the speedster's best spells of the campaign. Ponting and John Buchanan deserve considerable credit for this efficient execution.
Andrew Flintoff has been unable to lift his bedraggled outfit. A colossus last time around, he has been a marginal figure. Not that he has ever complained or lost his innate sportsmanship. But the bluff Lancastrian appears ill-suited to the cares of captaincy. Comparisons with Ian Botham are inevitable. Flintoff is half the cricketer, five times the man and a more mature leader. Tactics are his weak point. He does not feel the pulse of a match.
Yesterday England crumpled against an opponent primed for the kill. They batted without conviction. Not even the belated promotion of Kevin Pietersen could change the mood. Instead he drove loosely at a dying delivery and lost his stumps. Not that scoring runs was easy against a relentless attack backed by clever fields. The Australians pitched the ball a yard further up and were rewarded with disturbed stumps and leg before decisions as the ball misbehaved. Between them Clark, Lee and Glenn McGrath hardly bowled a bad ball.
Yet the last word lies with the local hero. Shane Warne had toiled almost alone in 2005. Often he found himself bowling to the opening batsmen. Now he has been almost his old self, spinning his side to victory with virtuoso performances. Here he turned his leg-breaks sharply, varied his pace and laughed as the batsmen groped.
Nor did the great showman omit to send down a few reminders of his expertise. From the recesses of his memory he produced the ball that announced his greatness on this ground all those years ago, a beautiful, disguised, desperately difficult ball that cuts though the air and skids malevolently across the turf. In 1992-3 Richie Richardson fell foul of the delivery. Now a lesser soul, Sajid Mahmood, was baffled. Warne had struck again. It was not a bad way to say goodbye.
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