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Freddie, steady, go: Flintoff has come of age now

The challenge is to get to the bottom of the page without mentioning you-know-who. "Not many of you manage that," chuckles Andrew Flintoff.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2003 00:08 IST

The challenge is to get to the bottom of the page without mentioning you-know-who. "Not many of you manage that," chuckles Andrew Flintoff.

It has been a summer when the marketing men have set to work on the England team. There have been moody photos of Michael Vaughan dressed in calculated casual, posters of Marcus Trescothick resembling an unlikely scarred gunslinger, while James Anderson has been portrayed as the baby-faced destroyer with a red stripe plastered along the top of his head. It has all been a little contrived. But Freddie has just been Freddie. That is enough to set the pulses racing. He does not need to be ‘sexed up’.

He stands massively at second slip sharing a relaxed joke with his neighbour. He thunders in with the ball, exchanging the odd word with his opponents and just about managing a smile when Mark Butcher drops another catch at second slip. And when he bats, the bars empty. This summer the drinks stood lonely for an unusually long time. Against South Africa, Flintoff came of age as a Test cricketer, thumping 423 runs at an average of 52, his most productive series yet. The South Africa management decided that he was England’s man of the series. And they were right.

He now has some of the trappings of the sporting superstar. He has a capable agent in Chubby Chandler, whose main focus is on golf but who has developed a fine stable of cricketers with the help of his new employee and Flintoff’s old Lancashire team-mate Neil Fairbrother. (They have Vaughan, Trescothick, Anderson and Matthew Hoggard on their books as well.) But Freddie seems out of place with a briefcase in his hand. He still looks more comfortable with a bat.

Whether the bat is so comfortable with him is another matter. Flintoff endorses the ‘revolutionary’ Woodworm bat, which has bits missing at the shoulder. He should be the ideal salesman for the company except that every time we looked out at the middle this summer we seemed to see Freddie signalling to the dressing room for another one.

Under the force of his hitting, his bat kept disintegrating. He does his best to deliver the right sales pitch. ‘My bats take a bit of a battering. I’m not one of those players who chop and change their bats. Once I’ve selected one I use it all the time at practice, in the nets and in the middle. I feel a bit embarrassed for Joe Sillett [the bat maker] that they kept breaking.’

His embarrassment is misplaced. ‘The PR is reckoned to be worth £100,000,’ says Sillett. ‘We couldn’t have written a better script.’ He adds that the company line is: ‘Flintoff hits the ball harder than any cricketer has hit it and there’s no guarantee the bat will survive the onslaught.’

We can at least assume that Anderson, another Woodworm man, has used the same one all summer.

Flintoff’s summer did not really get under way until the one-day series - he missed the two Tests against Zimbabwe. ‘I looked around the dressing room and realised that I was the third most capped player in the one-day side and I enjoyed the pressure of this extra responsibility. I was batting at five, which gave me the chance to play a decent innings instead of coming out with 40 overs gone, and I was bowling first change.’

He responded to the extra burdens immediately, which set him up neatly for the Test series. At Lord’s, he smashed 142 in England’s second innings. ‘I know that in many ways it was a pointless innings - we were always losing the match - but it did give me confidence. Almost half of my Test matches have been against South Africa and I had never produced against them [in fact 11 of his 26 Tests have been against South Africa and he had not reached 50 until this summer’s match at Lord’s.] I know people were getting impatient, but I’m still only 25. I relaxed, enjoyed myself and because I was batting with the tail I had freedom to go for my shots.’ Which he did.

That century in the second Test was to prove a fine dress rehearsal for more crucial innings later in the series. ‘At Headingley [when he hit 50 with the tail], I got it wrong. I should have been a bit more careful. Then I watched Shaun Pollock at The Oval batting with the South African tail. He got the balance just right. So when I scored those runs on the Sunday I was a bit more calculated in the risks I took.’

This was not immediately obvious to those revelling in the stands, but that 95 set up England’s remarkable victory. Of course he should have scored his third Test hundred, but Flintoff genuinely has a disregard for personal landmarks. Instead he tried to heave another Paul Adams delivery into the stands to acquire the five runs he needed at a stroke. He missed.

He knows now that he will be batting at six this winter with the departure of Alec Stewart. He talks again of relishing the extra responsibility, of batting with more discretion. But not too much, I hope. Flintoff is at his most dangerous when he has licence to hit. There are still barriers to overcome. On the subcontinent, we have seen him mesmerised by quality spinners at the start of his innings. But fortified by this summer’s efforts and a solid first five in front of him, we can expect some fireworks.

First Published: Sep 15, 2003 00:08 IST