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February 19, 2009
How much did England know they needed to win this Test? The grimace on Andrew Flintoff's face as he put his body on the line gave the answer. Only when the extent of his hip injury is revealed will we know whether it was a heroic or foolhardy effort, but the desire to help his team to success was worthy of a victory that was missed by a whisker.
Flintoff hurled himself to the crease during a six-over spell after tea where he found reverse swing and almost dispatched Denesh Ramdin. Each time he took his cap from Rudi Koertzen the feeling was surely that's it. However, back he came, at one point hitting 90mph which went against the medical advice to bowl within himself. But a Test match was on the line and Flintoff only knows one way to play. Should Andrew Strauss have said no more, Fred? Maybe, but it would require a strong captain to take the ball away from him.
"Clearly he's not at full fettle at the moment," a dejected Strauss said. "He's got worries with his hip, but we aren't going to know the full extent until the scan is done in Barbados.
"We've seen it so many times with Fred that he does what the match situation dictates and sometimes they aren't for his best interest," he added. "It was incredible to see him bowling at that pace with that injury. Hopefully it's not as serious as first thought.
"The doctors' theories were that if he bowled within himself he'd be okay, probably in that spell he wasn't quite within himself. In those situations you have to trust the player and all credit to him for trying as hard as he could."
He even came back for one final effort in the fading light. That the spell was ended after one over was down to the light, not Flintoff giving in. Watching him wince in pain brought back memories of two other occasions when Flintoff bowled through injuries. Against India, at Headingley in 2002, he played despite a double hernia because England were so desperate to win the series, and during the World Twenty20, in South Africa, he laboured with his bad ankle because he thought "he might never play for England again."
This was a match England were also desperate to win to answer the critics after their 51 all-out debacle in Kingston. It so nearly went to plan. They scored over 500, had West Indies in a position to follow on and, even though they batted again, still set them 503 in more than four sessions. Strauss said that the follow-on couldn't be a realistic option because of Flintoff's injury, Steve Harmison's illness and also a sore elbow suffered by Graeme Swann.
As time began to run out everyone was called into service. The support staff lined the boundary to throw the ball back - even Reg Dickason, the security officer, was involved. In the dying moments Kevin Pietersen was struck a nasty blow on his hand and Ian Bell barely had time to put his helmet on to field at silly point.
The game ended with all nine fielders catching around the bat. Just as it had been a race against the clock to ready the ground, England were now in their own time challenge. This could be the most galling draw since Australia defied them nine-down at Old Trafford in 2005 and certainly as frustrating as when rain denied them against India, at Lord's, in 2007. The Ashes disappointment was followed by victory, the India one by defeat. The latter can't be an option now if they want to win this series.
"Clearly when you get so close in a Test and you don't make it over that final hurdle it is very hard to take," Strauss said. "In some ways it does feel like a defeat, but once the emotion subsides we'll realise there's a lot of positives to come out of the Test. The way we batted after Jamaica was the way to respond, the way Graeme Swann bowled was exceptional and Stuart Broad as well bowled very well. Hopefully we have shifted the momentum away from West Indies and if we can get better as the tour goes on there's no reason why we can't win the series."
Strauss's early days in full charge of this side have brought such a range of emotions - except the one he dearly wants. "Test wins don't come easily, especially on a wicket like this, even against Nos 10 and 11 it's hard to force the issue," he said. "I can't fault the bowlers, they did as well as they could in those conditions. It's just one of those things, it wasn't meant to be.
"We hoped it would deteriorate on day five but it didn't really, if anything it died a little and got flatter. The efforts of the bowlers were exceptional. We did everything we could do. Sometimes a ball goes to hand and sometimes it doesn't, it's those small margins."
Picking the side up after this result is a different challenge from the one that followed Kingston. Strauss said there will be a feeling they were denied "what we deserved" but that sentiment can't be allowed to linger. Given the strains of the last two weeks, it's a blessing that England have a short break now with a two-day game to play.
"It's going to be tough, for the next day or two there will be some weary bodies. Once the emotion clears and you see things rationally we'll see we played some excellent cricket."
From the state they were in after Sabina Park, the hunger to turn it around was evident to see. For some it almost pushed them to breaking point, and that will make the near-miss even more painful.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?