Flintoff approaching true greatness
At 4.45pm Andrew Flintoff bowled a horrid 90mph bouncer that Brian Lara could only fend to second slip, from in front of his throat. From the previous ball Lara, an undeniably great batsman, whatever his merits as captain, had reached 10,000 runs, in fewer innings than any man in Test history. But here Flintoff forced him into a reflex response born of self-preservation, not intent.
It was a symbolic moment. Everyone knew about Flintoff's much-improved batting, after he smashed the South Africans to all parts of South London at The Oval last September and belted 167 off Lara's West Indians at Edgbaston in the last Test. But less spectacularly over the past eight months Flintoff has made himself a bowler capable of dislodging the best, not just shutting them up.
Before 2004, he had flitted in and out of 29 Tests, and taken 52 wickets, at the unremarkable average of 45.55. Vaughan's predecessor as captain, Nasser Hussain, turned to him when he wanted an end shut up, because Flintoff was as frugal as a thrifty Yorkshire housewife, conceding just 2.88 runs per over. Indeed he was the least expensive bowler of the 2003 World Cup, largely because he bowled a length too full to pull safely and too short to drive without the splice or handle being rattled. But Test wickets came rarely: once every 16 overs.
The first eight months of 2004 have seen a transformation. His batting average in that period is 55.58, almost exactly that of Ricky Ponting. Flintoff has learned to hit the ball when it is right to hit, not just when the crowd roar. That is some achievement: it would have been easy to compromise a massive strength - his demoralisingly destructive powers - in the course of patching up a weakness.
But, more surprisingly, in nine 2004 Tests before this one he has 27 wickets, at 25.33 and a strike rate of 53, only a shade less incisive than the feared Jeff Thomson. And not a Zimbabwean or a Bangladeshi among them. Before this match Vaughan called Flintoff "probably the best player in the world at the moment". He might well be right.
It is, at least in part, a team achievement. Flintoff is stronger and quicker. But he has also received far better support from the other end, particularly from Stephen Harmison, who now has 50 Test wickets in 2004. England's nervous catching, of which he was so often a victim, has improved. And Flintoff has usually bowled with big totals on the board, giving him more scope to attack.
But if the team have helped him, he given back far more. His whole-hearted, smiling contribution is ill-defined by numbers, even numbers as impressive as these. Because of his human warmth and frailties - weight problems in the past, a fondness for the ale, his ready wit - the crowd love him, which lifts the team too. Despite this, there seems to be little ego involved. The confidence his presence gives team-mates is almost touchable.
Today poor Alastair Bressington, the 24-year-old substitute fielder, dropped Chris Gayle on 39. With thousands of accusing eyes on him, the lad wanted the ground to swallow him up. Later, when Bressington snaffled a steepling catch at third man, Flintoff, a man who had been coolly received into the England dressing-room himself, sprinted 80 yards to be the first to give him a huge bearhug. Flintoff never bawls at his fielders if they drop catches, despite the fact he himself takes everything that comes his way at slip.
He revels in the success of the team, despite his individual brilliance. "There is a great man who makes every man feel small," wrote GK Chesterton, "but the really great man is the one that makes every man feel great."
Paul Coupar is assistant editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.