March 2006: Freddie’s Fire

We’re three months in to 2006 – and there’s not much that we know now that we didn’t know when we were busy digging into our Christmas lunches. South Africa are still world-beaters at talking the talk before falling over their own shoelaces, the only way Mick Lewis will ever look International standard is if Ian Blackwell’s at the other end, and New Zealand at this time of year is less than hospitable. Even if the security guards have loosened up on their zero-tolerance approach to lesbianism.

Johannesburg aside – and what an aside it was – there’s still scant consolation to be had for a South African cricket fan in recent weeks. Australia were supposed to be vulnerable (heck, they repeatedly picked Lewis), they carried Andrew Symonds all winter, and even returned to Michael Kasprowicz’s unique brand of off-cutters and no-balls. Yet still they were a class apart. Herschelle Gibbs might have played the innings of a generation, but the stump cameras are less safe than ever when he’s at the crease. Despite the occasional sparkles from Ashwell Prince and inevitable counter-attack from Mark Boucher, the gap is just as big as it’s ever been – and Ricky Ponting just won’t stop scoring centuries.

Stuart Clark began the last English summer looking forward to a summer’s county cricket with Middlesex, but twelve months on has forced his way into the Australian first XI. Granted, an injury list only surpassed by England in India did its part, but nine wickets on Test debut also helped.

The chasm between New Zealand and the West Indies proved just as large, with Brian Lara’s struggles symbolising his team’s travails. Nathan Astle’s medium pace was enough for the great left hander on more than one occasion, and the only glimmer of light for the tourists proved to be Runako Morton’s middle order defiance. Bangladesh continued their steady steps towards International maturity with an ODI victory over Sri Lanka, whose difficulties continued as they fell to Pakistan at home. With an early-season visit to England next on the cards, and the International careers of Jayasuriya, Vaas and Muralitharan entering their home straights, Sri Lankan cricket may be about to enter its toughest period since gaining Test status.

Nonetheless, It wouldn’t take a Nostradamus – or even a Tony Greig – to make a respectable stab at foreseeing most of the above events. Player of the Month is about breaking the mould, creating the unexpected and dictating the terms. It might have happened in a session, or for a day, across the cricketing world, but in India, it happened for a whole series.

The last English Test victory in India came before the 19-year Ashes drought – before some of the current squad had seen a cricket bat, never mind picked one up. That’s without considering the casualty list – Vaughan, Trescothick, Giles, Harmison and Simon Jones played two Test matches between them, and replacement Alistair Cook missed the third. Suddenly, Ian Bell was the senior middle order batsman and Andrew Flintoff, the captain and elder statesmen. India had to win 3-0.

Maybe it’s something in the English spirit that ignores overwhelming odds – or maybe not, considering the ODI side’s inability to compete, never mind win a match – but a final score of one Test each matched the Ashes win for its two-finger salute to the history books, if not for its impact.

With the admittedly glaring exception of Blackwell, every man in the England side played their part. From new faces Alastair Cook, Owais Shah and Monty Panesar, through to Andrew Strauss’ century and Shaun Udal’s final-day spell at Mumbai, there was a contribution (even if it was only in terms of catching everything that came near them, in the case of Bell).

Contributions don’t win matches, however – and without the efforts of Matthew Hoggard and captain Flintoff, the report card would have read nothing more than ‘tried hard’. With them, there was a cutting edge and a drive that turned decent into distinguished. Hoggard was tireless, innovative and miserly, evoking comparisons with Glenn McGrath as he landed the ball with accuracy and mixed reverse and conventional swing with cutters and occasional yet effective bouncers. Come the end of the series, Virender Sehwag was officially the shaggy-haired Yorkshireman’s bunny, and Wasim Jaffer had been cut down from centurion back to parity with Gautam Gambhir and Akash Chopra.

Duncan Fletcher’s decision to burden Flintoff with the captaincy – as it was almost universally reported before the series – brought about the inevitable recollections of Ian Botham’s miserable stint in charge 25 years before. Freddie clearly didn’t bother reading them. It might have been unorthodox to opt for Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ at lunchtime on Day Five in Mumbai, but it did the business. His decision-making was unflustered, creative and positive (though Rahul Dravid’s intriguing decision to field first in the final Test helped), his bowling penetrative and combative, and his batting a revelation.

Even after the triumph of the summer, any debate about the merits of Flintoff as a batsman or all-rounder was certain to mention his miserable tour of India four years before, a tour that yielded 25 runs at an average just above six. Every innings this tour brought more than that meagre aggregate, four of them crossing fifty, as Flintoff lead from the front, by example and with no little courage… after deciding to stay in India for the whole series, despite the birth of his second child.

It’s been said many times before, but one more time won’t hurt. Andrew Flintoff isn’t the new Ian Botham. Ian Botham was the old Andrew Flintoff.

Cricket Web Player of the Month
March 2006

Andrew Flintoff

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