The Ashes are still very much alive

2009-07-25 00:00

AUSTRALIA were comprehensively outplayed in the Lord’s Test match. Despite the stirring sixth wicket partnership between Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin, England was on top from the first to the last ball. Andrew Strauss was able to declare to give himself two days to take a 1/0 lead. Thanks to Andrew Flintoff, the home side won with four hours and plenty of runs to spare.

So decisive was England’s victory that a comfortable series victory appeared inevitable. Then came news that Kevin Pietersen was going to miss the rest of the campaign. Most teams have four legs. England has a couple. One of them has been removed. Now the Australians have a chance.

Flintoff was magnificent. Indeed his performance was so outstanding that his retirement seems premature. He is 31 and surely has plenty of cricket left in him. Admittedly, he has suffered numerous injuries, but he bowled a spell of 10 overs at high pace. Throughout he looked strong and swift.

As a matter of urgency the selectors ought to ask him to think again. Cricketers like him come along about once in a generation. He was man of the series in the 2005 Ashes and has just bowled out the Aussies at Lord’s, thereby breaking a 75-year hoodoo at the ground. Only the greatest sportsmen can perform at that level in those circumstances. He might be a goose the rest of the time, but only fools care about that.

One thing was clear from the Lord’s Test — England has been using Flintoff the wrong way. Everyone watching the match agreed that it was one of the most impressive spells of pace bowling they had seen. Veterans said it reminded them of the West Indians speedsters of the 1980s, high praise because that was the strongest period of pace bowling the game has known. Suddenly cricket was a raw, physical game again. Courage was a factor in a way it has hardly been since the advent of helmets.

No change has been as significant since overarm was introduced. Cricket statistics ought to be divided into three sections, pre overarm, pre-covered wickets, and post helmets. At present, figures are thrown around and modern batsmen look like geniuses. Let them first try their luck with the ball flying around their ears on a wet pitch!

By chance, television was showing highlights of the 1974/5 tour of Australia in the intervals at Lord’s and a new generation was able to watch the devastation wrought by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson, arguably the most lethal pair the game has known. Flintoff belonged in that era. He is a fearsome sight as he charges to the crease with Australians in his sights and all England ablaze.

Alas, England has used him mostly as a stock bowler. As the po-faced Duncan Fletcher pointed out, the Lancastrian has taken very few five wicket hauls in his career. But Fletcher and company are partly to blame. They did not give him the new ball, preferring to exploit his exceptional ability to keep a length without losing pace. In short they tethered their tiger.

Flintoff is as tireless and accurate as a medium pacer and it is tempting to ask him to control the middle of the innings. Moreover, he hates giving runs away so the tactic might have suited his temperament — besides, he does not swing the ball enough to engage batsmen in front foot duels. But Strauss and Andy Flower have used him differently — giving him the new ball, bowling him in short bursts unless the end is nigh and encouraging him to attack the stumps. As a result, Flintoff has been clean bowling batsmen and trapping them leg before wicket. Pitching the ball up gives a bowler so many more ways of taking wickets. Lifters merely rough them up.

As a top class pace bowler, Flintoff ought to be used in bursts, allowed to bat down the list and told to swing his shoulders come hell or high water. Match winners are few and far between and ought to be backed to the hilt.

All the evidence suggests that Flintoff is going to win the Ashes for England and then wave good bye. It’s theatrical and wasteful.

And Pietersen’s injury clouds the issue. These blokes ought to stop competing and focus on taking England to the top, a position it has not occupied since 1956. At present India and South Africa are stronger. Australia is no longer the measure of all things cricketing.

Pietersen’s injury gives Australia a timely lift. After Lord’s the tourists were down in the dumps. An unbalanced squad was chosen and crucial players are out of sorts, with no replacements in sight. Now the local batting looks shaky. Pietersen’s ability and swagger conveyed confidence. Ian Bell has no such impact. Australia ought to play five bowlers and put runs on the board. With Pietersen out, the odds still favour the host but the gap has closed.

*Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is currently in England covering the Ashes.

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