From Kennington to Kensington
One letter and 4000 miles separate the Kennington Oval in London from the Kensington Oval in Barbados, but as far as Andrew Flintoff is concerned, he has found his home from home. After being cruelly under-rewarded in his first 31 Tests, Flintoff - the people's champion of this England team - has finally recorded his maiden five-wicket haul. And as thousands of his fans cheered him from the pitch, even Duncan Fletcher's perma-shaded features could not disguise the broadest of grins.
It was against South Africa last August - at London's version of The Oval - that Flintoff came of age as a Test cricketer. He was named Man of the Series for clubbing 423 runs at 52, including a seminal 95 in the first innings of that match, and the popular acclaim for his award far outstripped any of the numerous other ovations wafting around the ground - including a comeback hundred for Graham Thorpe, a farewell victory for Alec Stewart, and a double-ton for Marcus Trescothick (how long ago that must now feel ...)
So it is only appropriate that Flintoff should again be lifted by the presence of so many of his admirers. But for much of the day, it appeared that his rotten luck was set to continue for yet another innings. There is something extraordinary about the number of catches that are spilled off Freddie's bowling - and not everything can be attributed to his absence from the slips, where his bucket hands plucked out yet another sharp chance this afternoon.
Maybe his "heavy" ball really is too heavy for the mere mortals among England's slip fielders, not least Mark Butcher, whose fallibility in that region is fast becoming a liability. Butcher missed two regulation chances off Flintoff's bowling, and it was only when the super-sub Paul Collingwood came on in place of Matthew Hoggard that Freddie began to get his just deserts.
Flintoff is an unsubtle paceman, and it showed in the breakdown of his wickets. He lacks the ability to move the ball away from the right-hander, but fortunately Steve Harmison was once again on hand to account for most of them. Instead, Flintoff's deck-thumping deliveries spat off the edges of the three key left-handers in the West Indian middle order: Ridley Jacobs, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and the biggest scalp of all - Brian Lara.
Lara's wicket is crucial at the best of times, but today of all days, it was absolutely pivotal. He was severely criticised for retreating down to No. 6 at Port-of-Spain, but today Lara promoted himself all the way to No. 3, and was bristling with an intent that has been noticeably absent throughout the series. If ever a player can be said to have been due a century, it was Lara.
But there has hardly been an aspect of this series that has followed the script. Remember all those pre-tour predictions? Substandard pace attacks, even worse pitches, the inevitable dominance of bat over ball? None of it has come true - even the Barmy Army's anticipated boycott over ticket prices has failed to materialise. And so, for all the attrition shown by Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, England's day was made from the moment Lara failed.
Lara's recent form against England is worth repeating in full. He still averages nigh on 60 over the course of ten years and 25 matches, but the recent breakdown is indicative of his team's decline. At the time of West Indies' last victory over England (that innings rout at Edgbaston in the first Test of 2000), he averaged 78.09 in 28 innings, with five hundreds, nine fifties and a solitary single-figure score.
Since then, however, Lara's scores against England have been: 6 and 5, 13 and 112, 4 and 2, 0 and 47, 23 and 0, 0 and 8, and 36. Only once in six completed matches have West Indies avoided defeat, and there are no prizes for guessing which pair of scores contributed to that.
It used to be the case in the Caribbean that the visiting captain would be targeted by a battery of sweaty-toothed fast bowlers, with the gleeful backing of hundreds of home fans. These days the reality is rather different, as Michael Vaughan demonstrated on winning the toss and unleashing his hordes. A new confidence is pulsing through the England team these days, and now that their talisman has broken his hoodoo, there might be no stopping them.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.