LONDON, August 19 – Andrew Flintoff is all set for one last huge effort in Test cricket but England are likely to need much more than a one-man show if they are to recapture the Ashes from Australia in the series climax.England head into the fifth and final Test here at the Oval starting Thursday, with the series all square at 1-1.
But unlike four years ago when, with Flintoff at the peak of his powers, they arrived at the south London ground 2-1 up against Australia, now they must win to regain the Ashes while the tourists need only a draw to retain them.
Top-order batting has been England’s major weak spot this series, with only captain Andrew Strauss making a century for the hosts in the four Tests played so far compared to seven individual hundreds for Australia.
Spirited lower-order resistance helped paper over the cracks but England, who ever since Kevin Pietersen was ruled out after the second Test with an Achilles injury, have looked vulnerable to a batting collapse.
And so it proved at Headingley where in the fourth Test, with Flintoff ruled out because of fears the fast bowling all-rounder’s suspect right knee would not last the game, England were twice dismissed cheaply.
Australia won by an innings and 80 runs to level the series, a win that bolstered Ricky Ponting’s chances of avoiding becoming the first Australia captain in over a century to lose two Ashes series in England.
Flintoff is now set to return while South Africa born Jonathan Trott is in line for a Test debut after struggling No 3 Ravi Bopara paid for a series of batting failures by being dropped.
A movie script might have both Flintoff, whose knee problem has convinced him to retire from Test cricket at the end of this series after a career blighted by injury, and Trott both making big scores.
But the onus ought to be on the likes of under-performing top-order batsmen such as Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood.
England must also decide how best to take the 20 wickets they need for victory. The Oval pitch has a reputation for providing good bounce and carry while offering turn later in the match.
Fast bowler Stephen Harmison, Flintoff’s stand-in at Headingley, could well be retained at the Oval despite a tendency to waywardness.
Conditions can tempt the unwary into bowling too short but errors in length against quality batsmen will be compounded by a fast outfield.
Here England could do worse than follow the example of Stuart Clark who, after being recalled by Australia at Headingley, tied England down and took three first innings wickets while allowing the rest of the attack to ‘bowl’ around him.
However, England – whose pace attack looks impressive when the ball is swinging but less so when the ball is not moving off the straight in the air – do not have a Clark equivalent and as for playing a second spinner, by the time Monty Panesar becomes a factor it may be too late.
By contrast Australia, for all the talk of giving Brett Lee his first Test of a tour where he has been ruled out so far with a side injury or recalling off-spinner Nathan Hauritz, seem set to go in with the same team that won inside three days at Headingley.
Although they will want to win, they know they do not have to force the pace at a ground where seven of the last 10 Tests have ended in a positive result.
England did recover to win the second Test at Lord’s after clinging on for a draw in the series opener in Cardiff and Flintoff said "We seem to always bounce back well – so I don’t expect any different in this match."
But four years ago, when England needed ‘just’ a draw, they only got the result they wanted thanks to Pietersen’s 158 during which he was dropped by Shane Warne.
It was often said when Australia were the outstanding side in Test cricket at the start of this decade that the best way to beat them was for an opposition player to have the game of his life.
Australia greats Glenn McGrath, Warne and Adam Gilchrist may have retired but England fans, contemplating the task facing their side, would be forgiven for thinking little has changed.