Not surprisingly, every newspaper in Britain is full of Freddie Flintoff and every Australian writer equally full of the umpires.
When Nathan Hauritz shouldered arms and heard the clatter of leather on stump, Flintoff stood in the middle of the pitch, legs splayed, arms raised aloft. He was mobbed. When, 25 runs later, he castled Peter Siddle with a similar ball, to ensure that his name would be on the honours board for posterity, he knelt down on one knee in the middle of the pitch, head bowed, as if about to be knighted. He was mobbed again. He rose up through the clamour of his team-mates and saluted each corner of the ground, with a special nod to the Grand Stand where the WAGs were sitting.
Scyld Berry celebrates the combustible combination of talent, heart and showmanship that went into the Flintoff effort on the final day.
It will have a psychological impact on the rest of this series too. When Flintoff plays, Australia’s batsmen will view him as virtually unplayable. Because he was, from the pavilion end, unplayable as he pounded in and delivered at 90mph, jagging down the slope or holding the line, and pitching a slightly – but crucially – fuller length than he had done in Australia’s first innings.
And give Flintoff credit too for taking the crowd with him. It is showmanship if you like but it is also the attribute of the elite sportsman. Inspired and inspiring, Flintoff and the Lord’s crowd between them overwhelmed Australia.
Simon Barnes says you cannot measure Flintoff’s greatness by the numbers; the yardstick he prefers is the memories of those occasions [unfortunately less frequent than his fans hope for and his talent suggests] when he rises above the rest, and even above himself:
Oh, you can delve into the stats all you like and you can prove by algebra that Flintoff was worse than this bloke and not even as good as that bloke. And you can say that since the Ashes series of four years ago, Flintoff has neither consistently played nor, when he has, consistently delivered. And all these things are true, but they do not affect the matter of greatness.
Flintoff’s may not go down in history as the greatest of great careers. But Flintoff can do greatness — genuine greatness — on a seasonal basis, as he did four years ago, and on a daily basis, as he did yesterday. His thundering spell of mesmeric hostility first snuffed out the candle flame of Australian hope and then plunged them into the darkness of defeat. He bowled for an hour and a half in excess of 90mph, and every ball was a drama. Not bad for a lame lad.
Ten overs of remorseless spite, ten overs of unsparing effort. That’s one of the hallmarks of greatness: the ability to seize a moment. Flintoff never feels upstaged by greatness of an occasion. When the occasion is right, when all is right in himself, he can find the greatness to match it.
At the other end of the scale is Greg Baum, who is unimpressed with everything England: Strauss sucks, the Brits sledge more than the Australians [shock, horror!] and so on in a churlish whine.
It was evident before the series began, in the widespread sneering towards the unorthodoxy of rookie opener Phillip Hughes. It showed in England’s elaborate time-wasting tactics at the end of the first Test in Cardiff, which lay in that bleak no-man’s-land between gamesmanship and cheating. Never mind that the umpires should have acted more forcefully: the laws of the game enjoin the captain to uphold the spirit.
At Lord’s, England again has been the uglier team. Strauss claimed a catch that replays showed to be doubtful. Protocol demands that the batsman takes the fieldsman’s word. But practice is for the fieldsman most times to indicate that he is unsure, ceding the decision to the umpires. In contemplating the propriety of Strauss’ action, it is irrelevant that the umpires subsequently made a botch of the decision anyway.
England’s bowlers have sledged more than Australia’s. From 20,000 kilometres, it scarcely matters what they are saying: it is a puerile look. England was unconscionable in the way it wrapped up Flintoff in cotton wool in the pavilion between bowling spells. England observed few niceties. When Mike Hussey was given out erroneously, the England players leapt into one another’s arms without a backward glance at the umpire.
To the naked eye, it looked regulation: a drive, a noise, a snick, a sharp catch at slip. But Hussey stood for a moment, suspecting what a replay confirmed, that he had not hit the ball. This should have alerted England to the need at least to appeal. It did not.
A cricket team takes its cues from its captain. Flintoff was more suited to leading by example than instruction, Pietersen was divisive, but Strauss’ appointment looked to be a vote for good sense. Counter-intuitively, Strauss’ England had revealed itself to be competitive, but manipulative and petty.
Baum goes on to say that his column will likely be regarded as sour grapes. No kidding?! He also points out that he has been critical of Australia when it has pushed the envelope during the height of its dominance. Well, good for him.
There is however one point he does not get: What England is doing today is straight out of the template Australia perfected when it was the dominant team in world cricket:
Sledge? Check. Bully, hector? Check. Appeal for anything and everything, and pressure umpires needlessly? Check. Appeal for catches that were not cleanly taken? Check. Waste time when it suits them? Check. Celebrate the dismissal of a batsman, knowing fully well that he has been wrongly given out? Oh but of course, check.
What is gamesmanship to the goose…
The point, Mr Baum, is that the example has been not just set, but carved in stone by an Australian chisel. Now that Oz is not so hot, other teams who have been at the receiving end of ‘the spirit of playing hard but fair’ will take their cues accordingly — so yeah, it does sound a bit ‘sour grapes-y’ when you rabbit on in this fashion.
In all this celebration of Flintoff and denigration of the British ‘spirit’, one silver lining could get missed out on: Ricky Ponting, who accepted defeat with rare grace. I saw large chunks of the Aussie chase, and at times couldn’t help a ‘what if’.
What if ludicrously incompetent umpiring hadn’t meddled with the outcome? Could Australia have mounted a chase for the ages? From available replays, it wasn’t perfectly clear if Andrew Strauss had caught Phil Hughes clean, and the option of challenging decisions is still some months from being implemented. But surely the umpires, who had gone upstairs on a doubtful Nathan Hauritz catch of Ravi Bopara, could have done the same here? And if this was a borderline decision that likely would have gone the other way had the third umpire been called in, Michael Hussey’s was downright daft.
Two good batsmen done in by dubious umpiring — and the margin of victory was just 115 on a chase of 521.
Ponting would have for once been right to have voiced a mild complaint, but his post-match comments struck a far healthier note:
“There are fundamental skill errors that we have made in this game,” Ponting said. “I’m not just talking about the bowling. We didn’t bat very well either in our first innings. Two hundred-odd on that wicket was a long way short of what we needed to get.
“The first two days was where the game was decided. I was pretty happy with the way we stuck at things for the remainder of the game. It’s just little skill errors that have cost us big time.”
“It’s grabbing the momentum when you can and running with it for as long as you can that’s going to decide this series,” Ponting said. “If you look at this game, they grabbed the momentum on day one, ran with it, and we found it hard to wrest it back.
“A lot of Test matches are won with what happens in the first hour’s play. We were a fair bit off at the start of this game and we have to make sure we’re a whole lot better when we start the third one.”
And finally, Pup. Peter Roebuck salutes an innings that, as Michael Clarke himself said, did nothing to change the outcome. But I watched large chunks of it, and it was as good as it gets: With the bulk of his side back in the hut, the pressure must have been enormous, but there was no sign of that in Clarke’s fluid batting.
When someone asked me on Twitter, before the start of this series, what my prediction of the outcome was, I said Oz to win, but no whitewash — it will be a close series, like 2-1 or so. Nothing I’ve seen in this Lord’s Test tempts me to change that prediction.