Flintoff creates his own epic
All the great epic tales have that moment in the narrative when all hope is lost, when the hero stands bloodied and alone, with defeat in the air and the enemies at the gate. From The Iliad to The Lord of the Rings, via Headingley 1981 and Star Wars, the nadir has always been all too apparent. What is a nadir, I hear you ask? The definition I learned when I was at school still lives with me today - 92 adrift in the follow-on with three men standing, and odds of 500-1. Now, that's a nadir.
Today, however, that definition may have been re-written for a new generation, as Andrew Flintoff produced a performance from the Gods to flip the second Test on its head. A crass display against the new ball and the inevitable genius of Shane Warne had turned England's buoyant gambol towards victory into a grim struggle for respectability, and that was before England even located rock-bottom. At 83 for 6 in the 29th over, Flintoff forced Warne square with a windmill of the arms and took two steps before slumping to the floor in immediate and obvious discomfort. A lengthy hiatus ensued as Kirk Russell the physio manipulated Flintoff's shoulder, but the omens looked decidedly iffy.
Suddenly those freak injuries weren't quite so funny anymore. Without Glenn McGrath in their ranks, Australia had been shown to be mere mortals, but England without Freddie Flintoff? Their prospects were nothing short of stillborn. A dislocated shoulder - for that is what it appeared to be - and you could count him out, not only for the remainder of this innings, but the crucial bowling effort as well, not to mention the whole of next week's Test at Old Trafford. It was looking like 3-0 to Australia before the Premiership season had even kicked off.
Gingerly, Flintoff returned to the crease and a nation exhaled, but still the doubts remained. At best you figured he might return to full fitness in time for Old Trafford, but to what effect? Even Ian Botham never had to win three Tests out of three to regain the Ashes. And at worst, he could be doing irreparable damage to his prospects of returning before the end of the summer. Ridiculous pessimism in hindsight, but remember, this is a nation that, in 2002, learned a new word - "metatarsal" - and then turned it into front-page news for six weeks.
And yet, from the bleakest moments are nuggets of hope forged. As the twinge in his shoulder subsided, Flintoff patted back half-volley after half-volley and was even moved to roll his wrists on a controlled pull against Brett Lee, when the pumped-up animal within might have wished he could slap it high and handsomely - and straight down the throat of deep midwicket. Incredibly, providence seemed to be dictating the tempo of Flintoff's assault, and by the time the shackles of his shoulder had been lifted, he found himself seeing the ball like a medium-sized planet - for the very first time this year.
There was only one drawback to Flintoff's delayed breakout - the leakage of wickets that was taking place at the other end. Two in two balls had carried Warne to five for the innings, and only the dubious talents of Simon Jones remained. He made 44 on debut in 2002, but has since made No. 11 his very own, largely thanks to his downright refusal to rein in his attacking instincts. One wild swish towards the slips, however, and down came Flintoff to administer the stiffest bollocking that he - a mild-mannered giant - has possibly ever administered.
Jones knuckled down, and 51 immeasurably vital runs later, the wisdom of his words were plain for all to see. As Ponting aped Mike Brearley's tactics against West Indies in 1979-80 by posting his entire team on the boundary, Flintoff set about creating a miracle - for the second time in three home summers. At The Oval in 2003, he added 99 for the tenth wicket against South Africa (Steve Harmison's contribution was 6 not out) to turn a 3-1 series defeat into a 2-2 triumph that forged the spirit that has been carrying the side ever since.
But this time it was the Ashes - and not only that, the World Championship Ashes as well. Somewhere, up in the press box, was Botham himself, scourge of the Aussies yes, but sadly anonymous whenever West Indies, the daddies of his day, came round to play. Now, however, Flintoff had rescued England in each innings of the most important Test of his life, and still his most astonishing moment was to come.
After the Lord's Test, when Flintoff's batting was under some scrutiny, Duncan Fletcher said that it was rare for allrounders to hit the heights of both suits of their game at one time. Freddie was bowling brilliantly, yes, but there would probably come a time in the series when his batting would take priority and his radar would go awry. With the Australians on 47 for 0 chasing 282, and Justin Langer in ominously unbreachable touch, England desperately prayed his golden arm would not desert him now.
Would it heck. Flintoff prised an opening through his sheer force of personality and then, having thrown in a crafty no-ball to ensure an elongated ovation from a now-frenzied crowd, he added Ricky Ponting with the last ball of a stunning opening over, to transform the picture of the game. The momentum was back with England - Matthew Hoggard struck first ball for the second time in the game and Ashley Giles, that dear derided dobbler, added Katich and Gilchrist to set England's pulses racing. The last half-hour came, and the momentum started to ebb, but then - at the absolute final moment - up popped Harmison with the greatest slower ball he will ever deliver.
It was a day sent from the Gods, and let's not forget, they have been smiling on England throughout - from the moment that Australia's great warrior fell on his Achilles ankle, to the twinge that steadied Flintoff's eye and enabled them to return from their nadir. Roll over Ulysses - a new epic hero has arrived.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo