England's attack capable of victory, says Flintoff
For a man quite literally on his last leg, Andrew Flintoff is doing a mighty fine job of staving off the reports of his imminent demise. First with the ball at Lord's, and now with the bat at his favourite venue, Edgbaston, he has seized the momentum of two pivotal days' cricket, and bent them to suit his will. When Andrew Strauss dared to tempt fate and declare before the match that the Australians no longer have an aura, he was doing so in the comfortable knowledge that so long as Flintoff remains fit and in England's starting line-up, they possess the single biggest character on either side.
By the close of a fourth day as packed with intrigue as any so far in this series, the frailties in Australia's Ashes campaign had been further exposed to the elements - even in a final session when England, by Flintoff's own admission, bowled some way short of their best. Nearly two days of rain delays have left them needing a dramatic run of dominance to have any chance of a 2-0 lead by Monday's close, but as James Anderson and Graham Onions showed by claiming 7 for 77 in the first session on Friday, there are ways and means to tighten the screw in the current climate.
"We've played some good cricket so far in this game, so there's a belief and some quiet confidence, but we know it's going to be tough," Flintoff said. "We have an attack that is capable, it's just a matter of showing it. We might have started a little better with the ball [tonight], but we managed to get the breakthrough, and we're in a decent position going into tomorrow."
As it happens, Flintoff's contribution with the ball was as muted as it is possible to be when bowling at 90-plus mph. For the second innings running he reverted to his less-than-ideal splice-beating length, and after failing to take a wicket in his first 19 overs of the match, he self-deprecatingly stated his only role was to remove the lacquer on the new ball for Anderson and Onions to start it swinging at around the 30-over mark.
"It would be easy to say my knee's hurting and that I had a shocker, and blame it all on my knee," he said. "But so far in this Test I've not bowled as well as I'd like, and I'm not making excuses for that. It's no secret I've got a bit of a dicky knee, but I can still bowl at decent pace and I can still run in. I'll bowl whatever overs Straussy wants me to, and in between Tests I'll rest up. I want to play in every Test of this series and it would have to be something very serious for me not to."
Flintoff's mobility and determination were instead demonstrated with the bat in hand, as he reverted to his old self in a much more rewarding sense, by thumping hard and straight to rack up only his second Test half-century in two-and-a-half years, and his highest score since Sydney in January 2007. "It would have been nice to have got a century," he said, as he lamented getting out without playing a stroke when Nathan Hauritz spun one into his gloves. "But if someone had said I'd get 70-odd I'd have taken it."
More than the runs he scored, however - 74 off 79 balls - the most crucial aspect of Flintoff's performance was the message it emitted. By the time he was dismissed having added 141 in 24 overs with Matt Prior and Stuart Broad, his exploits had ignited a passion in the stands that has been unmatched all series. It is not a coincidence that Flintoff now averages exactly 50 in Tests at Edgbaston, a run of scores that include his highest in Tests, 167 against West Indies in 2004, and that brace of 68 and 73 against Australia in his defining performance four years ago. He thrives on the adulation of his fans, and they in turn feed from his exploits. When it's all in harmony, it is English cricket's perfect symbiotic relationship.
"It's probably the best atmosphere you play in, in the country," Flintoff said. "Headingley will be different again, but at Edgbaston they've always got behind the side from start to finish. It has helped us in the past and I'm sure it'll help tomorrow. I'm sure ticket sales have gone through the roof, and we'll be playing in front of a full house tomorrow." As many as 11,000 seats were still available this morning, but seeing as the ticket office website had crashed in mid-afternoon, it's safe to suggest that a fair few of those have now gone.
Those who turned up to cheer Flintoff's exploits were rewarded with the sight of England as a unit getting fully stuck into their opponents - again, no doubt as a result of the passions being pumped through the stadium. While the booing of Ricky Ponting when he came out to bat was regarded in some quarters as unjustifiable jingoism, the overall effect was to push Australia firmly onto the defensive, mentally and competitively, as Mitchell Johnson's ongoing torment once again proved.
Today was unquestionably Johnson's best of a miserable series. He bowled fast and straight and claimed two good wickets, including Ian Bell at the third attempt. But he was also clobbered at nearly five runs an over, as England's tail took their lead from Flintoff and Prior, and kept attacking with bat and body-language. One ferociously entertaining over from Johnson included an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with Stuart Broad, whose own bowling has lacked a similar degree of confidence to Johnson's, but whose mental approach has not been seen to waver in the slightest.
"I don't think there's any fear," Flintoff said of Australia's reaction to England's attacking mentality. "It's just competitive, isn't it? There are two sides out there in the middle, and it obviously means a lot to each side from the way the game's being played, but it's all in good spirit. I'm sure when it's seen [from the sidelines] everyone starts thinking what's going on, but there's no point making a meal of it. The lads are going at it hard, the Australians as well. They play it tough."
The fifth and final day ought, in all honesty, to be a draw, but somehow even Ashes draws end up being classics in their own right. From Sydney 1994-95, via Brisbane 1998-99, to Old Trafford, The Oval and Cardiff of recent vintage, there has hardly been a dull denouement on display. "We've worked hard in the Test so far," said Flintoff. "We've lost some time to rain, but going into tomorrow, that first session will be massive for both of us. If we can start well, we can put some pressure on Australia, and we can win the Test match. However, if they can get through to lunch unscathed, they'll think they'll be doing alright.
"Going into the last day at Lord's [last week] we only needed five wickets, so we knew if we got a breakthrough we were strong favourites to do pretty well, "he added. "But tomorrow, there's still [Michael] Clarke to come in and [Marcus] North, there's still some fine players and it's not going to be easy. Both sides' patience is going to be tested by attritional cricket, but hopefully we can stick to our guns, start well, and be sitting pretty tomorrow night."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo