The pattern of a long series is seldom uniform – men who make double hundreds at the start often find ducks waiting for them at the end. But long series are not as long as they used to be, so fragments of pattern are apt to survive. England’s openers stuttered yet again; they may be just too alike. Yet another Aussie retired. Hunter S Thomspon may have got it wrong: when the going gets soft, the tough get going.
Ian Bell compiled another of his fighting fifties, rather than one of the hundreds he reels off when he is in his rightful place at number six. Kevin Pietersen again mixed genius with rushes of blood. England made another baffling selection, opting to field all three of their seaming liabilities (Harmison, Anderson, Mahmood) rather than a second spinner (Dalrymple) who might have provided the missing cement at number seven. For the second Test running, they missed Jon Lewis, who could have been their best bowler on the Melbourne Christmas pudding, and the most natural understudy for Matthew Hoggard here.
They had as good a day as their long-singing fans could have asked for, yet they stand only a couple of nicks away from another insipid total. The difference is likely to depend, as so much has in this series, on Andrew Flintoff. “New year, new you,” the newspapers are all saying, but Flintoff prospered by finding his old self today, for the first time in nine months.
Lately he had regressed to his callow younger self, hanging out half a bat at stock deliveries. Today, even though he arrived in a mini-crisis, he was instantly decisive. He looked busy, ran freely and hit out selectively, using more of the face (and therefore saving a little of it). Off Stuart Clark and Brett Lee, he made 26 at a run a ball. Finally someone has worked out that just because Clark is a commercial lawyer is no reason to be silenced by him. This was the Flintoff of Edgbaston 2005, and the scorecard half-resembles that one. Ricky Ponting, sensing trouble, lurched on to the defensive.
It’s often a good sign when Flintoff is not out overnight. Last time it happened was in Perth, when he at least managed a semi-defiant fifty, and the time before was Mumbai in March, when he and Collingwood were at the crease as England finished the first day on 272 for three. Flintoff made 50 twice, sang Ring Of Fire, and led the way to his only overseas victory as captain. Today, he made sure that a mass leaving party was also an even contest.
It was a great idea for the adverts on the grass, usually so charmless, to say a big thank you to Warne, McGrath and Langer. But let’s also, in a smaller way, salute a man who managed to be carefree when the cares of the world were on his shoulders. Thx Fred.