Waking up to the stars

Three successive heart-stopping Tests settled at the 11th hour; two great sides battling to finish on top. The Ashes series is set for a magnificent finish, writes TED CORBETT.

IN MANY ways the build-up to the Ashes finale — the biggest sports story of the year — is no great surprise.

Tickets sold out immediately they went on sale, soon afterwards England clinched the series in South Africa and then gave poor under-strength Bangladesh two knockout punches. That all happened before the Australians set foot in this country. So it was always going to be big. Now it is massive, as a tidal wave of enthusiasm for cricket sweeps the country.

By the start of the fifth Test at the Oval — with England 2-1 ahead, having had the better of the drawn game at Old Trafford even though they could not capture the last wicket in four full overs — the country that has always professed to think of the England cricketers as the least glamorous sportsmen woke up to the game's stars as never before.

Partly because of the way the series has somersaulted after the hefty Aussie victory by 239 runs in the opening match at Lord's, the historic headquarters of the game where England are prone to defeat, where they beat Australia only once in the 20th century. Partly because of the new hero Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, 6ft 4in, almost 17-stone of natural blond charm who bowls with the meanness of Scrooge, who bats as if he is in a private competition to see who can hit the ball furthest, who catches brilliantly at slip as well as in the outfield.

Even in a side where Michael Vaughan, the captain, is a beacon at mid-off because every member of the side defers to him, watches him intently, will run from one side of the field to another to help him, Flintoff is so much the focus of attention that a newcomer to cricket might confuse him for captain, coach and star player.

Not long ago Freddie was a big fat lad with a lot of talent. Right from the start of his career he could bowl fast, hit the ball into the middle of next week and catch balls one-handed that most of us would want to use a baseball mitten and armour plating to stop. He was the least fit athlete in the world which stopped him performing as he should have done.

I think the average guy in the street — in a country where 22 per cent of the adults are obese — identified with that fat boy image. It would be a happier country if they followed Freddie's example, lost the weight, did the training and became a superstar.

Instead they settled for the dream. That one day fat Freddie would turn into fit Flintoff and win back the Ashes.

Easier than a long spell in the gym every day and much more fun than a diet of plain water and not too many vegetables.

Flintoff had a poor match at Lord's but after great bowling at Edgbaston and his county base Old Trafford, as well as a century at Trent Bridge he is soaring up the world rankings and is the key man in the England team.

The crowds love him with his huge grin, his reputation as a steadfast family man with a pretty wife and a young daughter and his habit of picking up his team-mates and slinging them over his shoulder to celebrate success. Or doing a back flip at the fall of a wicket. All with a grin as wide as the Atlantic.

That is how they see their sporting heroes. Larger than life like Paul Gascoigne whose private affairs are such a disaster, Mr. Nice Guy like Tim Henman or attached to another part of the pop world like David Beckham.

This summer, as he has piled up one milestone on top of another, Flintoff has overtaken all these older heroes.

The media loves him too. Television cannot get enough of his on-field antics, his big hitting, his 90-miles-an-hour bowling or his — mostly make believe — ferocity portrayed by fearsome facial contortions.

One newspaper pays him handsomely to tell it the way it is, his picture dominates back pages and front and he is in constant demand for magazine features, his own story, his accounts of his rise and rise.

Radio thrives on his Lancashire burr and his habit of coining the right phrase for the moment. Like the time his dad tried to catch his six hit on a balcony at Lord's and failed. "He comes home every week-end and tells us what he's done in his cricket team and now look at him. Don't they let you down!"

His personality has been a cornerstone in the Ashes fever that has swept the country. The other players have their moments — Marcus Trescothick standing motionless in the crease and driving the ball imperiously through the offside, Vaughan batting with such class that he looks disdainful, Matthew Hoggard toiling to the crease over after over, Steve Harmison delivering throat balls that threaten to put the batsman on a stretcher — but Flintoff is the lynchpin. He is the consistent bowler who ties down the batsmen at three runs an over which may be his neatest trick. But he is also the link with the crowd and that amazing 12th man factor in the pursuit for the Ashes — the Barmy Army.

Just because they make a monotonous noise, just because we can all look down our well-educated noses at their antics, their costumes and their colourful language; just because some would rather watch their cricket to the background noise of gentle clapping; we should not write off their importance to the performance of England Ashes quest 2005.

At Edgbaston the volume of those Birmingham City and Aston Villa fans who turned up to see "their side" — that is England — win helped Vaughan's men to that last ball victory. At Old Trafford there were 40,000 trying to get in — and some had driven long distances overnight — and only 17,000 found spaces. Those who made it roared and shouted and cajoled England as loudly as they abused the Aussies. Half way through the day Trescothick at first slip was asking for more noise, more encouragement like a long jumper at the start of his run.

Yet they stood to applaud Ricky Ponting's desperate and successful rearguard action and got to their feet for Shane Warne both when he reached 600 wickets and when he made 90. The rest of the time they booed every Australia moment.

At Trent Bridge they cheered each run in that final innings, they would not let England contemplate defeat and then, very properly, remained behind the barriers when the temptation to rush on to the field and hug their heroes must have been overwhelming.

You see, sportsmanship has also played a part in this resurgence of interest in cricket that sees the fifth Test at the Oval as the great climax to a season of unprecedented excitement.

Fans have grown tired of the petty squabbling, the monstrous greed and the foul tactics of football. They have wearied of waiting for Henman to win Wimbledon or any of this generation of golfers to win a major. The Rugby Union world cup success proved to be a flash in the pan. But the cricketers are genuine heroes, players the fans can relate to, big, bronzed, modest sporting gods who do not flaunt their money — Vaughan is handing part of his benefit cash to charity — married to ordinary girls, raising young families and, best of all, beating the Aussies.

We have hated the Australians — remember most of them are the descendents of convicts our ancestors got rid of in the 19th century — who came back here in the 1880s and thrashed us at our own game. They forced us to turn the Test matches into a joke by pretending to play for the Ashes; bails burnt and stored in an urn so small that a captain holding it above his head at the end of a series looks ridiculous, not triumphant. They have always held it more than we have; which, paradoxically, is why the trophy is permanently housed in the museum at Lord's.

Now they have had it for 16 years, which means that babies have become parents years since we last won a series in 1986-87.

Now there is a chance the silly little urn will return. No wonder replica cricket shirts outsell replica football shirts. No wonder Vaughan will have 15,000 spectators at his benefit match. No wonder most people told a survey conducted for the sponsors npower they were more interested in the last two Tests than the start of the Premiership.

You can see kids playing cricket in the parks, queues for autographs, hear that county memberships are increasing; a 20-20 tournament expects big crowds even though it is being staged in mid-September.

Flintoff; three successive heart-stopping, heart-warming Tests settled at the 11th hour; two great sides battling for all they are worth to decide which will finish on top of the mountain.

There are no tickets left but the temptation to phone in sick on September 8, to sit in front of the television for the next five days, to take the phone off the hook, and sink into your own theatre of dreams must be overwhelming.

It may not be war, as the old general said, but it is sure to be magnificent.