Flintoff has final flurry with the bat

LONDON: Andrew Flintoff's final Test innings was short, occasionally spectacular and over far too soon for all his admiring fans crammed into the Oval for Saturday's third day of the Ashes decider.

Flintoff, whose 79-Test career has been blighted by injuries, is retiring from the five-day format at the end of this match because his body can no longer stand the strain.

The star of England's 2005 Ashes series win again walked out to a standing ovation from a capacity 23,500 crowd having managed just seven in the first innings before being caught behind off left-arm quick Mitchell Johnson.

He came to the crease with England well-placed on 168 for five in their second innings, a lead of 240 in a match where victory would give them the Ashes 2-1.

Flintoff was greeted with a handshake by Australia captain Ricky Ponting, a sign of appreciation that probably meant more to the Lancashire star than many of the tributes paid to him this week.

Unlike his first innings, Flintoff got off the mark in resounding fashion when, second ball, he struck part-time spinner Marcus North through mid-wicket for four, getting rid of a close fielder in the process.

There were three further boundaries to delight the crowd but just when fans thought Flintoff was about to hit his stride the 31-year-old, going for a typically big hit, skied a drive off North to long-on where Peter Siddle made no mistake with the catch.

Spectators were on their feet again, normally a strange reaction to an innings of 22 that lasted 26 minutes and spanned 18 balls, as Flintoff, with a rueful swish of the bat, walked back into the pavilion.

There was no theatrical exit, just a quick glance over his shoulder and a slight raise of his bat to acknowledge the applause, with England captain Andrew Strauss among those clapping in the home dressing room.

Flintoff, who bowled England to victory in their 115-run second Test win at Lord's, had aready played his part in this series.

So the fairytale finish was still on hold but at least Flintoff, whose right knee injury saw the selectors leave him out of the side that lost the fourth Test by an innings and 80 runs at Headingley because of fears he would not get through the game, had one last shot at glory with the ball.

Flintoff has proved popular with fans ever since making his debut as a 20-year-old against South Africa back in 1998.

Bowling fast and hitting the ball a long way as Flintoff can, has always had a primal appeal to spectators.

His popularity with fans and team-mates alike may be out of proportion to his place in cricket history - Flintoff's average of around the 32 mark with both bat and ball is some way short of greatness.

And he has 'won' far fewer Tests than England predecessor Ian Botham nor been as influential as Pakistan great Imran Khan, the outstanding all-rounder of the last 25 years.

But Strauss told reporters here at the Oval on Wednesday: "I don't believe you rate someone purely on their stats, you rate them on their contribution to team victories and to the game of cricket.

"He's earned the right to be one of the best players I've seen in my generation and he's earned it because he has put in big performances at just the right time. Hopefully, he can do that once more and lead us to victory."

As Flintoff walked off, it somehow seemed appropriate Stuart Broad was walking in.

Also a pace bowling all-rounder, Broad - who made 37 on Friday - had ripped through Australia's top-order with a stunning spell of five wickets for 37 runs in 12 overs as the tourists were dismissed for just 160 in their first innings.

Broad, who bats left-handed but bowls right, was soon off the mark with a four he timed beautifully through the covers off Johnson.

As it turned out, England's 'leader' was the other blond all-rounder in their ranks.