Full for Freddie
Only Andrew Flintoff knows quite how close to the end he really is. His retirement announcement on the eve of the Lord's Test invited criticism in some quarters, not least from Ricky Ponting, who accused him of reducing the Ashes to a farewell "circus". But to watch the manner in which he has hurtled in all through this match, in spells of not more than seven overs from in front of the grand old Pavilion, there's no question which role in the big top he has earmarked as his own.
For seven bone-rattling overs at the start of the fourth day's play, Flintoff was the ringmaster, in total command of all the action. The churlish will doubtless counter that the umpires were his clowns, but he found the edges that so often elude him, and by extracting the obdurate Simon Katich from the first (no-)ball he faced, as well as the skittish Phillip Hughes 19 balls later, it seemed he really was orchestrating his very own grandstand finish. What could be a more glorious send-off than to end Australia's 75-year hegemony at Lord's?
By the end of the day, however, Flintoff's figures wore a troublingly familiar look. In the course of his long and occasionally illustrious career, he has bowled 2424 overs over 133 innings, sent down 499 maidens, conceded 7183 runs and taken 222 wickets. His average analysis therefore works out at roughly 18-4-54-2. By the close of a day in which he was once again magnificent, but still worryingly unpenetrative, his figures were a spooky 17-3-49-2. To the bitter end, Flintoff is bowling with fabulous futility, it seems to defy logic that his career has gone so unrewarded.
"I'm not out to sift through his career and say he should have got more five-fors," said his team-mate, Graeme Swann. "He's a magnificent bowler, he runs up and bowls so fast and so heavy, and no-one wants to face him with that new ball. It's a massive boon for us that we've got him bowling for us, because I wouldn't want to face him ... ever again."
Everyone you ask in the world game has a similar response. Flintoff is a gargantuan, galumphing presence, a man who pours heart and soul into each delivery and puts the fear of God into even the most sturdy and talented men. "I thought he was outstanding today," said Australia's coach, Tim Nielsen. "He bowled aggressively, he bowled fast, and the biggest thing about great players - and [Ricky] Ponting's got it I believe - is that when they're playing well, they have that presence, and the game seems to revolve around them."
For that seven-over new-ball spell, the game certainly was all about Flintoff, and the key to his success was his length. He pitched it up a good half a yard at first, and gained instant reward when Katich sliced to gully at the start of his second over. Up on the balcony, Ottis Gibson the bowling coach received a point of approval, a clear indication that he'd been bowling to a pre-set plan, and the contentious Hughes catch also came from a ball that zipped off a full and hard-handed push.
But after that, something didn't quite click. Flintoff's next seven overs, at the start of the Haddin-Clarke partnership, were a reversion to the role that he is all too attuned to performing. Mike Atherton in the Sky commentary box described his length with a 33-over ball as a "macho" length, as he bashed the turf with power that few can rival, and fizzed the ball past the splice and into Matt Prior's gloves to sighs of anguish from the crowd. Flintoff is destined to be remembered as a magnificent but unlucky bowler, but that's partly because he's never perfected the role that could have made him great.
In fact, Flintoff has been handed the new ball in only 24 of his 77 Tests, and of those matches, there've been only nine occasions when he's taken it in both innings as part of a fully-fledged plan. One of those occasions, ironically, came in the Super Test against Australia in 2005-06, when he partnered Steve Harmison in the World XI attack, and bagged seven wickets in the match. Had Graeme Smith captained him more often, perhaps he'd have got his rewards.
Whatever happens in this match and for the rest of the series, Flintoff will still go down in history as the man who bowled one of the greatest overs in the history of Test cricket. His seven-ball over at Edgbaston in 2005 contained two wickets, and crucially for England's prospects on Monday, both came from a swinging, snarling full length - first a round-the-wicket battering ram that popped off a good length and bludgeoned through Justin Langer's defences, and then a stunning outswinger that Ponting snicked to the keeper.
In his three new-ball overs before the close on Sunday, Flintoff was still that awkward yard too short. Edges flashed high and flashed hard, and away through the slips for four. Tonight, however, he has a chance to refocus. Gibson's words of encouragement should be short and to the point. Pitch it up, Freddie, and get the rewards you deserve.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo