12 August 2009.
This article first appeared on the eve of Flintoff’s final match, against Australia at The Oval in 2009.
England’s totemic allrounder has been more about competence, stout-hearted service and some irresistible performances, rather than out-and-out greatness.
Somewhat to the amusement of observers, England seems to dwell upon and to equate The Battle of Agincourt, the repelling of the Spanish armada and the Battle of Britain with the 2005 Ashes series. In this age of reality television, cooking and home improvement shows, and talent tests, it is possible to spend an entire evening without coming across any of them, but it is not easy. And now comes another eagerly anticipated moment, Flintoff’s Last Stand. If the bluff Lancastrian pulls it off, if he can rise from his bed and conquer the Australians at The Oval then he will join a list of local heroes whose deeds of derring-do have long since entered folklore, become a cricketing version of Robin Hood and Richard The Lionheart.
5th Day, 3rd Test: England v Australia, Edgbaston, 3rd August 2009. Andrew Flintoff ponders his next delivery.
Photo ©: Nic Redhead / Flickr.com
English cricket’s enduring focus on 2005 helps to sustain interest in the game in a country that is also staging the most compelling and widely followed sporting drama in the world, namely the Premier League. That is hot competition. And 2005 was an exceptional series, the most thrilling ever played, in most opinions. Whatever its outcome, the 2009 edition cannot stand beside it. Four years ago the combatants were the top two sides around. Australia fielded two of the greatest and most charismatic bowlers the game has known. England had an astute captain, a growling coach, a pair of mighty warriors, and an abundance of spirit. Every day, every hour was enthralling.
Now, too, the campaign has defied prediction but there has been one significant difference. Throughout the epic, the play was pitched at a high level. By way of contrast, a lot of humdrum cricket has been produced this time around. Arguably the sides belong in the middle of the rankings. Still, England expects and Flintoff awaits.
Several factors lie behind England’s obsession with Flintoff. Partly it is a nation’s need for heroes. Partly it is the manner in which he plays his cricket, with generosity and adventure. Partly it is the way he takes on the Australians. After all, he was Man of the Series in that famous victory. Partly it is the way he lifts a crowd, responds to its roars, goes into battle on its behalf, captures the imagination. He has an ability to communicate with spectators. Hope has been his calling card. And he has the common touch as well – likes ale and darts and so forth. People sense that he belongs to them, and so forgive his foibles.
As his Test career seeks its last glory, so the obsession becomes almost a craze. Before the Headingley Test, Andrew Strauss, a worthy man, captain and cricketer, spent most of his press conference fending off questions about Flintoff, who had scored a fifty but not taken a wicket in the previous match. It must be exasperating. Flintoff was deemed unfit to play, and afterwards that became a story, when it emerged that his entreaties had been ignored.
Now the question arises as to his standing in the game. Provided he passes muster, he has five more days of Test cricket to play. If he is to be hailed as a great cricketer then it will be in a special category. In every other case in the last 100 years this recognition has been reserved for those with exceptional records: batting averages over 50 (maybe 55 these days), hundreds of wickets taken with due economy and so forth. Flintoff does not quite meet those standards. His record tells of high competence, stout-hearted service, numerous injuries and some irresistible performances at critical moments.
Admittedly allrounders are not required to average as much with the bat or as little with the ball as specialists. After all, it’s impossible for them to focus on one skill to the same degree. Moreover it is no small thing to be amongst the best six in one discipline, batting or bowling, let alone both. Among them Garfield Sobers stands head and shoulders above the rest, with Imran Khan his closest rival, not least because he was also a fine captain. It is high company and Flintoff is not diminished because he cannot quite keep it. Perhaps it is best to regard him not so much as one of the greatest allrounders but as an inspirational figure able once in a while to answer his country’s call.
Certainly the periods of domination have been fleeting and his career has been sporadic. His body and to some extent his native caution have held him back. Flintoff is not a natural extrovert, not by nature a swashbuckler. Comparisons with Ian Botham are unavoidable. From the outset the Somerset man embraced his destiny, sought his glory. To him technique was a means to an end. As a boy he clouted the ball around without inhibition. Nothing could stop him. He had an inner drive, a strength of will that lurked beneath a jovial exterior. He is amongst the darkest of cricketers. Flintoff is a more down-to-earth type. Lacking his predecessor’s inner force, he relied on the crowd and the moment to lift him. Otherwise he was inclined towards introspection. Botham did not take technique seriously. Batting together in a charity match once, we decided to imitate each other. For 10 minutes he blocked furiously with left elbow high. For 10 minutes I swiped hugely at everything in reach. Both interpretations had merit.
In times of trouble Botham tended to advance. Contrastingly, Flintoff has been inclined to close ranks. At the crease he has been content to proceed carefully, using his solid technique to collect runs even as his physical threat intimidated bowlers. At times he resembled a Gulliver trapped by the Lilliputians in his brain. With the ball he tended to bowl a containing length, denying the drive, slowing the scoring, perhaps picking up a wicket or two along the way. In both cases economy was taken into account. After Lord’s, Duncan Fletcher pointed out that Flintoff had only taken five wickets in an innings on a handful of occasions. And it was true. Yet there was also another reason, besides temperament. Flintoff does not swing the ball and so tends to pitch a foot further back. Mostly, though, it has simply not been in his nature to risk all on the roll of a dice. Lord’s showed what had been missed – with raw pace he breached several well-constructed defences.
Flintoff wanted to contribute, not dictate. The contrast with Kevin Pietersen is equally illuminating. The South African decided to be great, took the necessary steps, trained himself to think the right way, surprised people with the way he made the transition. Flintoff wanted it to come to him. He was not the gambler or the killer or the egoist. Rather he was a populist, a team member. Isolation made him feel uncomfortable. Again the comparison with Botham is instructive. Botham did not like to be alone, did not even like to have a room to himself, but he did not fear it. Fishing counted among his recreations.
Much could be told about Flintoff’s hesitation from his early appearances. After all he turned up for one of his first representative tours several curries over par and was unsurprisingly in the bad books. Here was a northern lad, the same as everyone else, blessed with ability but not ready to pursue it with commitment. Who could tell where it might lead? Although it tends nowadays to be forgotten, Flintoff was doubted for many years, dismissed as an overrated and overweight player plucked from the pack mainly due to some passing resemblances to previous champions. Yet he seemed have something to offer. Mostly he relied on the public to back him up. Perhaps the truth about his cricket, and his character, lay between the legend and the myth. Neither the highest hopes nor the worst fears have been confirmed.
In some respects Flintoff never did completely mature as a cricketer. He took the team to Australia but was unable to control himself, let alone his side. Marcus Trescothick withdrew, stories of drinking circulated, and in Adelaide the side, including its captain, played a dead-batted game in the critical hour and so squandered a powerful position. Flintoff was blamed for the debacle, and not without reason. Like Botham he had not been able to convey the forthright spirit detected in his game. He could not overcome his fears, had no one to order him to attack.
Hard-headed historians examining Flintoff’s career may conclude that he did not quite fulfill his promise. It is a truth that cannot be avoided, yet it does not tell the entire story. Flintoff has played some wonderful cricket, has subdued the mighty Australians a few times, has never been cheap on the field. Ken Barrington, they say, walked on to the field with the Union flag on his back. Flintoff has brought an entire nation together in a cricket spectacle. If he has not quite counted among the elite, he has performed great feats in an otherwise barren period. In short, he will be missed. Hereafter he will make his millions, and miss his millions.