Tale of a folk hero

Cricket Personality

This has been coming for some while now. Ever since the operation on Andrew Flintoff's ankle, and the relentless hours of rehab with Rooster Roberts that led all too quickly to another injury and more hours on the treadmill and the moors, it has been blindingly obvious that his body would no longer tolerate without violent protest the rigours of 18 stone of fast bowling muscle slamming like a piledriver into unforgivingly hard Test pitches.

It is a chain reaction: orthotics and boots designed to protect an ankle distorted by the angle it comes down in delivery impact elsewhere because each muscle and joint had become attuned to the response of its neighbour. One out all out, as it were. If the spirit remains undiminished to produce the quantity of high-octane overs required to sustain a Test match career, then the body has rebelled. The solution is to take the chosen path, to one-day internationals, Twenty20 and the riches on offer from the Indian Premier League. So we get to see more Fred, and he gets to bowl in short bursts that will do less damage to his knee, and allow better recovery afterwards. And if it all serves to make him even wealthier, then where is the harm in that? Everyone is a winner.

The timing of his announcement will be regarded by some as an inappropriate and selfish distraction from the job in hand but this is a churlish view.

The distraction has come only in the uncertainty that seems to surround every match for which he is selected. Now a decision has been made, he, his team-mates and the England management know precisely where they stand in the longer term.

In truth, neither Andy Flower nor Peter Moores before him have been factoring Flintoff into their equation, projecting a Fredless future while regarding any appearance as a bonus. If once he was the hub of the side, he has long since been the cherry on top of the cake instead.

He and his employers will have thought long and hard about whether such an early statement of intent will channel public interest away from the series and into a valedictory tour around the country. The sort of attention heaped on Steve Waugh when he played his last series is not the kind of diversion that this summer needs.

But just consider the opposite effect, the force of which the Australians might come to regret. It would be entirely consistent with the way in which Flintoff plays the game that the finite time he has left playing cricket's supreme form will be spent trying to elevate his game to the highest level, to show that he is not going out as a spent force but as a wounded hero. There is no pretence any more, no wondering if he throttles back here, then he can go for broke there. The chances of him completing five full Test matches are remote, but it won't be for the want of trying. When given the opportunity, he will bludgeon his way into the Australian batting like a wrecking ball into a derelict building, ramping it up, like Nigel Tufnel, to 11; he will bat without fear; and he will catch swallows.

Of equal importance, though, is the impact that he will have on his team-mates. For some while now, he has ceased to be the totem that once he was, becoming a player who has to slot into a team unit rather than one who feels the team cling to him like a comfort blanket.  It is possible to get on without him, they have shown. On the whole though they would rather have him there than not and now, knowing that all too soon he will be gone, they may be galvanised by his desire to leave Test cricket on the highest of highs, having, as captain against Australia last time, known the lowest low that an England captain can experience.

How, when the boots come off for the last time, will he be viewed? Is he one of the greatest of all-rounders? His bare statistics say not, an excellent reputation enhanced into legend by one stupendous series and its aftermath.

Of the dozen England bowlers with 200 or more wickets, none has fewer five-wicket hauls than his two, neither of which came in the last four years.

Not one of his five centuries has come since the one he scored against Australia at Trent Bridge four years since. He is close to but still the wrong side of the criterion for a high-class Test all-rounder, averaging 31.69 with the bat and 32.51 with the ball, when it is generally accepted the bowling average should be lower than that for batting.

England, it is said, have fared significantly better in his absence in recent times than with him (although this ignores the fact that low-profile series have come when he has been in rehab). No Bangladesh or Zimbabwe for him. The downturn in performance has to be related to his injury level. This is statistics and bikinis, concealing as well as revealing.
His bowling has often been caught between the role of spearhead and defender, his length shorter than optimum as a result. His natural slant in, with no marked ability to cut the ball away, makes top right-handers able to use the angle productively and he is far more potent against left-handers, the best in the game from around the wicket, especially when the ball reverse swings and he finds a fuller length. Beyond that, he is the battering ram that opens the breach for others to pour through. His batting changes the course of matches in a session.

He would no more survive as a batsman for whom runs were his sole source of bread and butter than Ian Botham did. One discipline feeds from and allows licence to the other.

They are interdependent. On the glory days he can galvanise by example those around him.

Posterity will see him as a genuine folk hero, a man of charisma, a Colossus. A champion cricketer and one with a sting in his tail yet.

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