A tale of two captains
The last time Ricky Ponting faced the media at the end of an Ashes series, the first question he received came from a hard-talking TV news reporter who demanded his on-the-spot resignation for the "humiliation" of losing the closest and greatest Ashes contest in history. This afternoon, it was Andrew Flintoff who was coming to terms with the true definition of the word, after his England side had been served up on a platter by their ruthlessly focussed opposition.
"Australia have raised the bar in this series," admitted Flintoff, whose crest has fallen so far already that he seemed immune to further disappointment. "In patches we've competed with them, but whenever we've put a foot in the door it's been closed on us. From our point of view, it's not for a lack of trying or character. We've just been beaten by a better team."
The latter part of that statement certainly could not be quibbled with. Australia have been magnificent all series long. Every single one of their seven batsmen made centuries; each and every member of the bowling attack topped 20 wickets for the series. "I couldn't be any more satisfied than I am at the moment," said a beaming Ponting at his press call. He was a man at peace with the world after the indignities he suffered in 2005.
As for the rest of Flintoff's statement, however - something was undoubtedly amiss. "I couldn't have asked for anything more from the lads," he insisted for the fifth match out of five. "Their efforts throughout the series - they've kept coming back, kept working, and kept their intensity. They've tried to improve and perform, and you just can't fault that."
Well, frankly, you can. England on this final day were a shower. They lost their two overnight batsmen without an extra run on the board, and they would have lost even more humiliatingly had it not been for the improbable intervention of Steve Harmison, who top-scored for the day with 16 not out and then launched into a futile assault with the new ball that had Justin Langer admitting afterwards that it was the best he had faced all series. What a strange moment to come to the party.
England have been rudderless and directionless on this tour, and sadly the lack of drive has to derive from the attitude of the captain. In fairness to Flintoff, he is still finding his feet in the role. Each of his immediate predecessors, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, endured torrid times before they defined their style - and only last week, Duncan Fletcher cited Vaughan's first Test in charge, at Lord's against South Africa in 2003, as the worst defeat of his career.
But it is not unfair to criticise Flintoff's unthinking support for his men. "It's not through a lack of practice or wanting to do well," he reiterated. "We wanted to string together performances for full five days at a time. We wanted to stay with them and nick a result at the end, but unfortunately that's not been the case."
If that approach sounds familiar, that is because it is exactly the approach that Flintoff first encountered under Hussain - an emotional, attritional leader who was also the captain of a young side in times of adversity. His single rule of thumb, however, was the polar opposite to Flintoff's nice-guy approach to the leadership. He would stand at mid-on throughout England's tours of the subcontinent, cajoling and haranguing, and demanding extra effort even when there was nothing extra to give.
And yet, Hussain also failed his acid test. He succumbed 4-1 on the last Ashes tour and 8-2 in his two series against Australia, which just goes to show that there's only so much that any team can do when faced with a great opposition with their sights fully set on revenge. "I've never mentioned that word once," insisted Ponting, although he did concede that the victory in this series was all the sweeter for the defeat that had preceded it.
"The last time we won the Ashes in Australia was the shortest period of time ever," he said. "We played a bit harder this time. The cricket we've played has been as good as I can ever remember. Lots of so-called experts said England would win when they arrived here, but look at the results. It's a great feeling right at the moment, and we can't take that feeling for granted either."
For Flintoff and England, it is time to look to the future. Come 2009, revenge will be the buzzword once again, only this time it'll be emanating from the England dressing-room. "It can't be a pointless exercise to be beaten 5-0," said Flintoff. "We're a young side, and as long as we've learned something from this, we can improve going forward.
"Some of the lads have already shown that they can compete with the best team in the world. But after the jubiliation and joy of 2005, we have experienced the other side. But, hearing the Aussies speak about The Oval and using it as a spur, I'm sure that's something the lads will remember for next time. Conceivably, everyone in that room could be playing in 2009."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo