England’s Big day arrives

Published : Aug 29, 2009 00:00 IST

England’s heroes... Andrew Strauss.-AP
England’s heroes... Andrew Strauss.-AP

England’s heroes... Andrew Strauss.-AP

It has been that kind of a triumph, squeezed out by an often fragile team against opponents who frequently threatened to tighten their grip on the trophy, writes Richard Williams.

A souvenir stump clutched in his giant paw, Freddie Flintoff strode away into history as England’s cricketers regained the hallowed Ashes at the Oval. On a day of glorious late summer sunshine, with a capacity crowd of more than 20,000 shirtsleeved and straw-hatted spectators packing the old ground, another 10,000 watching the event unfold on a giant screen five miles across London in Regent’s Park and millions more glued to their television sets, they beat Aus tralia with a day to spare in the fifth and final match of an enthralling series in which fortunes often fluctuated by the hour.

So tumultuous were the celebrations on the pitch when the final Australian wicket fell that it was impossible to tell whether England’s champion all-rounder had managed to mark his retirement from Test cricket by grabbing the very stump he had hit with a direct throw just over three hours earlier to run out Ricky Ponting, the opposing captain, and set his side on their way to a 2-1 series victory.

As usual, the Ashes had thrown up an unfolding narrative of incomparable drama. And after a day of stubborn resistance, in which Michael Hussey scored Australia’s eighth century of the series, the touring side’s last five wickets fell with a sudden rattle for a mere 21 runs in 48 balls, leaving them all out for 348 and still 197 runs short of the mammoth target of 546 set by England’s declaration that Saturday evening.

Flintoff, whose next appointment is with a surgeon charged with the task of operating on his injured right knee, was England’s hero when they won the Ashes at home four years ago and their helpless captain when they surrendered the little terracotta urn in Australia two years later, in a series they lost 5-0. He returned to the ranks after that bruising experience, the injury reducing his contribution this summer and leading to his omission from the fourth Test at Headingley.

In this match he scored a negligible 29 runs, took only one wicket and held on to a single catch. But the devastatingly accurate throw with which he dismissed Ponting, after the Australian skipper and Hussey had hindered England’s progress with a third-wicket stand that lasted two and three-quarter hours, was the day’s pivotal moment.

He was later dropped from the England squads for the forthcoming one-day and Twenty20 series, the forms of cricket to which his future activities will be restricted, for the operation to take place as soon as possible. Famous for the exuberant manner in which he celebrated the 2005 victory, he promised to mark this one by taking his wife Rachael, who watched the day’s play on August 23 with their three small children, to dinner before reporting to the surgeon on August 25. “I’ll be nil by mouth in a couple of days’ time,” he said. “He’s an incredible player,” said his grateful captain, Andrew Strauss. “And he’s a great advertisement for the game of cricket.”

Strauss took over the captaincy eight months ago, during a period of characteristic English cricket turmoil in which Kevin Pietersen was relieved of the position and the head coach, Peter Moores, was sacked, replaced by a former Zimbabwe international player, Andy Flower. Strauss was given the award for the most influential player in the series.

Not the least impressive characteristic of this calm, thoughtful 32-year-old is his refusal to indulge in hype. Even amid the euphoria, his summary of England’s performance this summer was a masterpiece of realism. “When we were bad, we were very bad,” he said. “And when we were good, we managed to be just good enough.”

It has been that kind of a triumph, squeezed out by an often fragile team against opponents who frequently threatened to tighten their grip on the trophy. Nothing symbolised England’s success like the heroic 40-minute stand between two tail-end batsmen, Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, which prevented what had seemed an inevitable win for Australia in the first Test in Cardiff. Had England gone one down in the series straightaway, they might never have come back.

Flintoff’s heir apparent, and English cricket’s new pin-up, is Stuart Broad, the 23-year-old all-rounder whose burst of five wickets in Australia’s first innings earned him the man of the match award. “No one can replace Freddie,” he said. But Broad can now hold his head up in his family home, having equalled the achievement of his father, the former England opening batsman Chris Broad, a member of a winning Ashes squad more than 20 years ago.

As the players performed their lap of honour on the night of August 23, basking in the acclaim of their delirious supporters, they were accompanied by those who had been left out of the final match, including Panesar, and by Kevin Pietersen, their best batsman, who played in the first two matches but was ruled out of the remainder of the series by an Achilles tendon injury.

After the 2005 victory, the squad members received OBEs and MBEs. On the night of August 23, Ladbrokes cut the odds against Flintoff receiving a knighthood in the new year’s honours list from 16/1 to 10/1.

“There’s a lot of things I want to do, like being on the winning side in a World Cup,” he said, looking around the Oval as the shadows lengthened. “But I’m going to miss days like these.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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