The Old Trafford roar that says Freddie's come home

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The Independent Online

Even as the patient spectators, including the Fred Flintstones, six "cavemen" from Stoke on Trent, had waited, damp and bedraggled beneath the stands for nearly six hours, the promise of such a duel had provided considerable succour.

Two names which have defined this series: the local hero, on this, his half-century of Test appearances celebrated on his home ground, pitted against the world's finest bowler who, for the second time in a week, has been in inspired form with the bat, albeit yesterday the beneficiary of some England misfielding.

Midway through Flintoff's first over, a delivery reared up causing the Australian to take evasive action. The players' eyes met briefly, a wry smile from both, and a look which conveyed only mutual respect.

By the time that play was halted for good, ironically as the sun blazed down from a glorious blue sky, Warne and Jason Gillespie had recorded a moral victory, although one suspects it is only a postponement of the inevitable.

While some wounding words have been swapped in the 11 days of this series thus far, and many body shots have been inflicted, it has also been notable for some deeds which have ascended way above the pre-series ritual verbal baiting.

None more so than when, with all the other England players whooping and hollering in the distance like a manic country band, Flintoff placed a consoling hand on the shoulder of a stricken, squatting Brett Lee at the non-striker's end when the final wicket had fallen at Edgbaston on Sunday, with Australia agonisingly short of victory. Lee had withstood a brutal onslaught from Flintoff. But he had stood his ground valiantly to the end. Flintoff recognised one of his own.

That response will linger long in the memory and says much about the character of Flintoff. Some may harshly contend that such an act of compassion by an over-familiar, too-friendly Fred, when he could have left his adversary to suffer his torment alone, has no place on such a field of combat. Indeed, there were concerns about his ruthlessness and whether he could translate his imperious form against lesser nations on to a similar level when faced by these opponents, when he emerged at Lord's and reacted to the Australian attack less as if brandishing a club and more as though armed with a twig.

Those who have witnessed his emergence here from the moment when coach David Lloyd brought him to the county in his early teens remained convinced that Flintoff would respond positively to that initial hesitant exposure to the realities of Ashes cricket; those like Jim Cumbes, Lancashire County Cricket Club chief executive, a former fastmedium bowler here, who also enjoyed a parallel career as a professional goalkeeper. "Of course, it was his first Ashes series, and everyone thought 'Mmm, is Freddie going to measure up here?'," says Cumbes. "A lot of people have measured up to decent Test sides, but this was the best, and suddenly it's all a bit different. But he's proved he's up to it."

Like many at Lancashire, Cumbes was convinced at first that Flintoff's strength would be his batting, and his bowling would be, as he puts it, just "more than decent". The Lancashire chief adds: "In fact, his bowling's been a revelation." He pauses. "Bowling at 90mph? I don't think that anyone ever expected that.

"Fred's the ultimate enthusiast and he's really matured in the last couple of years. He had those couple of nasty injuries, the double hernia and the spur on his ankle, and our physio, Dave Roberts, has worked really hard with him, and I think he's told him a few home truths.

"His message was 'Look, Freddie. You've got all this talent, but if you want to do it, you've got to be fit'. To be fair to Freddie, with the help of Neil Fairbrother, who's managed him, he's responded, slimmed down, and now he's dedicated to keeping himself in good order."

Comparisons with Ian Botham are inevitable - if premature - despite that six-laden aggregate of 141 and seven wickets at Edgbaston. He will live with it, and feed off it, believes Cumbes. "His knock at Edgbaston put you in mind of Botham in his prime," he says. "Freddie just slaughtered the ball all over the place to try and carry the game out of their [Australia's] reach. It's a shame that yesterday [Friday] he didn't go on to make a hundred [rather than 46], but that's the way the lad plays."

If Flintoff continues to extract wickets, like that of the obdurate Simon Katich on Friday, deceiving him with a ball that curved in after four that swerved away, on England cricket's Glorious Twelfth, Australia's élite being left like downed grouse, there will be few complaints if he remains so cavalier with the willow.

Cumbes adds: "The difficult thing for Freddie is that the demands of the game now, particularly at this level, are such that to be really good at both is bloody hard work. It's a lot harder now to be an all-rounder than it was even 10 years ago. And with Freddie, there's huge expectation which is pressure in itself. But he can handle that."

The last month has amply demonstrated that.