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Kevin Pietersen who has suffered another setback is an imposing batsman but has not so far confirmed that he is an immortal. His heart and mind pass muster but his passion is muted, writes Peter Roebuck.

Although the outcome remains uncertain, the 2009 Ashes series has not aroused as much passion as its predecessor. As much can be told from the lack of urgent messages from all corners asking for updates. Simply, the characters involved have not been large enough to merit strong emotion. Nor has the play been brilliant enough to provoke gasps.

Even the human tales have been lacklustre. Most have concerned Mitchell Johnson’s mother. Apparently she does not like the paceman’s girlfriend. Well, there’s a first! It’s the stuff of magazines, not serious debate. Mostly the series has been lacklustre. In victory, even England will surely not call the entire squad to Buckingham Palace. Whatever the scorecard, 2009 is not 2005.

Apart from the fluctuations in fortune, attention has focussed on the three formidable cricketers involved. Not that Kevin Pietersen lasted long. Allowing him to go to play in IPL a few weeks before the series began was weak-willed, and the same applies to the other English participants, none of whom returned unscathed. As the Australians discovered in its first year, IPL takes a toll on mind and body. Now Pietersen has suffered another setback. He is an imposing batsman but has not so far confirmed that he is an immortal. His heart and mind pass muster but his passion is muted.

Flintoff has been the series’ most compelling figure. Along the way he has played various roles, wounded warrior bravely returning to the front, patriot, popular hero rejected by a craven establishment. Whatever the intentions, it is always dangerous to announce a retirement long in advance. Inevitably attention switches to the farewell performances. Now he makes his Last Stand. England will roar him on and romantics will yearn for a glorious finale but cricket is beyond sentiment and he has a bunch of determined Australians blocking his path. Flintoff has been a fine cricketer but not quite the desired conqueror. His will to win has betimes been outmatched by his lust for life. Moreover his large and untamed body has been both a source of strength and a frustration.

Ricky Ponting has been the third and most influential of the main characters taking part. It has been a tempestuous time and he has remained calm. First his team was denied victory at the last in Cardiff. Next Australia tasted defeat at Lord’s for the first time for 75 years. Hereabouts he had much on his mind. No Australian captain since Billy Murdoch had twice lost the Ashes in England.

For four days the visitors seemed doomed to defeat in Birmingham. Ponting could not stop the rot. His reputation lay in the hands of the players he had nurtured. They did not let him down, saving the match with aplomb whereupon the series took another turn. Australia launched a counter-attack and England fell apart. Ponting was able to preside over a superb performance that squared the series.

Now he goes to The Oval in charge of a prowling team intent on proving itself a worthy inheritor of a great tradition. He also appears as the highest run-scorer in Tests his country has produced. All series sections of the crowd have been booing him. Admittedly he is an Australian captain but he is also one of the best batsmen the game has known, and he’s playing his final Test on English soil.

Now it’s time for the home crowd to rise to the occasion. So far Ponting has been the dominant figure in a campaign that has pitted his determination against Flintoff’s fractured flamboyance. On this occasion Australian grit has more to commend it than English ardour.