The greatest over

CAN I have a memory of Andrew Flintoff that doesn’t involve pedalos, post-Ashes partying or plugs for Red Bull? (And can I call him Andrew now, rather than Freddie?) I’ll take Edgbaston 2005, and the greatest over of a career that he confirmed today is at an end.

August 6, 2005 was an overcast Saturday in Birmingham. Second Test against Australia, day three. England had been thrashed at Lord’s and had to win at Edgbaston to maintain a realistic hope of winning an Ashes series for the first time since 1986-87.

The game turned on Flintoff’s performance, which turned his career. He had claimed four wickets at Lord’s but looked edgy, particularly with the bat, being bowled for a duck by Glenn McGrath in the first innings and falling to Shane Warne for just three runs in the second.

At Edgbaston, he had batted at times with the kind of aggression more befitting a Twenty20 innings. When he injured his shoulder, he was forced to restrain himself – and if anything, batted better. His score of 73 helped England out of a big hole on day three. Then he came out to bowl.

Australia were 47-0 in their second innings and a good bet for victory when Flintoff stepped up, on a hat-trick after taking two wickets at the end of the tourists’ first knock. He didn’t get the hat-trick – but that was just about his only failing.

“We had a shaky start at Lord’s, and I just thought: I’m going to enjoy the occasion,” Flintoff later said. “I’m going to go out there and play – and have no fear of failure.”

My goodness, did he go out and play. In that one over at Edgbaston five years ago, Flintoff proved himself the best all-round fast bowler in the world. He demolished Justin Langer and reduced Ricky Ponting – the great Ricky Ponting – to a quivering wreck. A wonderful sporting contest was distilled into a few minutes of Flintoff magic.

Langer blocked the hat-trick ball. The second took away his off stump. One down, enter Ponting.

Flintoff, with a typical understatement, looked back on the challenge that faced him as follows: “When you bowl at people such as Ponting, you’ve got to be on top of your game, otherwise you’ve seen what he can do.”

England had seen what Ponting could do in the first innings, when he scored 61. But Flintoff really was on top of his game. The third ball of the over beat Ponting’s bat and hit him just too high to be given lbw. Then the fourth had him rocking back on his haunches. Ball five beat Ponting again – and another lbw appeal was rejected.

Flintoff then delivered a no ball, giving him one more chance. Australia’s captain looked terrified, and with good reason. The final delivery came down at 90-plus mph, reversing one way and then the other. Ponting was trapped, helpless. He nicked the ball, it carried through to wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, and one of the greatest overs ever seen in a Test match had ended with two leading Aussie batsman back in the pavilion.

It was the perfect ball to end the over, and prompted TV commentator Richie Benaud to reach, for him, almost unprecedented levels of hyperbole.

“If you can find for me a better ball than that – a more difficult ball to play – you’re my friend for life,” said Benaud.

Flintoff greeted the wicket with his X-shaped celebration, feet spread wide and arms aloft. It became such an iconic image, even Aussie schoolchildren were soon trying to copy it.

“It was the best over I’ve ever bowled, I think,” Flintoff later said, even his own natural modesty unable to completely deny his own achievement.

“I was still on a high from the batting, scoring 70-odd. The crowd were behind us, and we knew the importance of that session. We needed to take wickets and defend our score.

“I just ran in and it was one of those moments where everything seems to happen for you.”

England did win that Test match, in just about the most nailbiting manner possible, squeaking home by two runs when it looked as if Brett Lee was going to see off everything that was thrown at him. (And there was a lot thrown at him.)

Flintoff’s move to console the defeated Lee became perhaps the defining image of the series, a sign of great sportsmanship. Even so, Flintoff couldn’t resist joking later that what he actually said to Lee was: “It’s 1-1, you Aussie bastard.” It’s easy to see why he might get on well with Shane Warne.

A series victory followed, as did the freedom of Preston, his home city. Life was never quite the same again for Flintoff. There were moments of brilliance, but also too many injuries. And yet, faced with so many of the trappings of celebrity, he remained remarkably sane.

In the end, his right knee could take no more. Jonathan Agnew, in his excellent BBC blog, suggested that problem was exacerbated by his bowling technique, with his foot pointing down to long leg rather than at the batsman – and that he might have enjoyed a longer career had this been coached out of him at a young age.

There’s a feeling with Flintoff that he might have achieved more in cricket after 2005. But that one day at Edgbaston is a great way to remember him. Enjoy your retirement, Andrew. You’ve earned it.

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