Now is the time Freddie

Every once in a while a sportsman comes along who changes the perception of his sport and, by doing so, changes his own life forever. Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal in Sydney and David Beckham’s last-minute free-kick against Greece were two such moments. Rugby and football blossomed in the afterglow, much as cricket is doing now, but Wilkinson and Beckham have been in slow decline ever since. Wilkinson because his body cannot cope; Beckham because he cannot cope.

Regardless of the result at The Oval, Andrew Flintoff now walks in such company. Maybe he is not earning the dollars (yet) of the other two, but in terms of profile and popularity he bends his knee to no one at present. Edgbaston, where Flintoff starred with bat and ball and then, damn it, showed grace and humility at the moment of victory, was his drop-goal and free-kick rolled into one.

From that moment on, the Ashes series of 2005 seemed destined to become known as ‘Freddie’s Ashes’, just as the 1981 series has gone down in legend as ‘Botham’s Ashes’. It is worth recalling Flintoff’s performance in that match. But first it is worth recalling his performance in the match prior to that match. Lord’s was Flintoff’s first Ashes Test match in seven years of playing international cricket.

A combination of injury and poor form had prevented him from playing in the previous three Ashes series. Lord’s was his moment. He scored nought and three, took four wickets for 173 expensive runs and dropped a dolly at slip. England were hammered.

He retreated to Bovey Castle in Devon for a few days with his family. Not exactly purgatory, I grant you, but whatever he did there – and I’m led to believe not much other than thinking – it worked. He was a man transformed at Edgbaston. What he did at Edgbaston is what all-rounders are supposed to do, but very rarely manage to do – that is score runs and take wickets at crucial times in the same game. He scored 68 and 73 and took seven for 131 in the match as England sneaked home in one of the greatest Test matches of all time.

When England wobbled with the bat, Freddie smashed a few boundaries to ease their nerves. When they wobbled with the ball, he answered his captain’s call time and again with vital wickets. And after a tense, gripping final morning, Flintoff bent down to console the vanquished Brett Lee at the moment of victory, in what may become the series’ defining image, to show that our sporting heroes don’t have to be egotistical maniacs.

Freddie’s impact from Edgbaston onwards has been to turn upside down the perception of Test cricket, himself, the English team and, crucially, the Australian team. Even before this summer, Flintoff’s star had been rising fast. But there was still a doubt, at least in my mind, whether his batting would stand the scrutiny of high-class bowlers. (I’ve thought he has been England’s best bowler now for a couple of years.) Not only has he led the attack with gusto, destroying the confidence of Australia’s most dangerous match-winner, Adam Gilchrist, he has played a swashbuckling innings (Edgbaston) and a great innings (Trent Bridge). Flintoff has become only the fourth England all-rounder in history to score more than 300 runs and take 15 wickets in an Ashes series.

Before this summer, Test cricket appealed to a minority. Like an English beach holiday, it was the preserve of an older generation. The games were invariably sold out, but viewing figures for Test cricket hovered around the one to two million mark. Twenty20 was the new destination for the sun, sex and sangria seekers. No amount of lobbying on Test cricket’s behalf, by those of us who love it, mattered a damn. All that crap about Test cricket revealing character and the advantages of the subplots and twists and turns of the five-day game over the one-day game. Where was the tension? Where was the excitement? We aficionados knew it could be so, but spectators had become used to watching mismatches of titanic proportions. England versus Bangladesh? About as exciting as creosoting the garden fence.

This summer has seen the rebirth of Test cricket in this country. Old Trafford’s officials recalled the glory days of cricket, when people had little else to do, as between 10,000 and 20,000 people were turned away on the final day. Over seven million tuned in to watch that epic draw on television, a figure that was dwarfed as England inched towards victory at Nottingham. Women – I’ll say that again – women have been captivated. Kids are demanding the latest Freddie DVD and an England replica shirt. It’s been an expensive summer holiday for parents. Before this summer, England were seen as a decent outfit, one that had turned over some moderately good teams. But everyone knew that at the first sight of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne their batsmen would buckle; at the first sight of Matthew Hayden advancing down the pitch their bowlers would run for cover, and crucial catches would be spilled. Lord’s gave us the confirmation. Same old story.

Now, the talk is not just of the Ashes. The way we’re carrying on, you’d think they were already safely nestled in Michael Vaughan’s hands (now’s not the time for those famous butter-fingers of yours, skipper). The talk is of greatness, of eras, of empires – one crumbling, the other about to be born.

Before this summer, Australia were the supermen of cricket. This was the team who were faster, fitter, stronger than and tactically superior to anyone else; a team who attacked at every opportunity; who refused to use nightwatchmen; who caught flies; who scored quicker than everyone else; who abhorred the draw; and a team whose blueprint (six batsmen, wicket-keeper, four bowlers) was the one that everyone else copied.

Suddenly, old bones are creaking; catches have been put down; the nightwatchman has been pushed out of the dressing-room door at every opportunity; the Old Trafford draw was greeted with exultation, and at Nottingham Ricky Ponting set some decidedly Vaughan-like, defensive (defensive!) fields. At The Oval, Australia are thinking of bringing in Shane Watson, the all-rounder, and copying England by playing five bowlers. If you cut their veins, the Australians might even spill red blood.

Of course, all this is more than can be achieved by the feats of one man. And no doubt Freddie would be the first to shower praise on his team-mates. Equally, I am quite sure that without Flintoff’s performance at Edgbaston none of it would have happened. England would have gone 2-0 down and we might have all lost interest.

So what is the likely denouement of this saga? The Oval’s most famous cricketing moment came 52 years ago and the symmetry to the here and now is marked. In 1953 England had not held the Ashes for 19 years; a resolute Yorkshireman was their captain, and the golden boy of the day, Denis Compton, hit the winning runs. Who would bet against Vaughan emulating Leonard Hutton and recovering the urn after a hiatus of 18 years? Who would bet against Freddie Flintoff, the Compton of the day, administering the full stop to this most magnificent of sporting dramas?

If he does, we will bask in his reflected glory and wallow in his moment. But if he does, spare a thought for Freddie, too, for he will be a man who has climbed his Everest with a whole lifetime ahead of him. His life will have changed forever and forever is a long time. Sunday Telegraph, 4 September 2005