Freddie Flint(‘s) Off
Hot on the heels of Michael Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff has announced his retirement from Test Cricket today. As the curse of the 2005 Ashes claims yet another victim, I’ll be looking at Flintoff’s career pre and post Ashes.
After starring in youth cricket for St Annes in Preston and for Lancashire and England age group sides, where his size and strength gave him a considerable advantage over boys of a same age, Flintoff made his First Class debut for his beloved Lancashire in 1995 aged just 17. It wasn’t a resounding success, scores of 7 and 0 were backed up with match bowling figures of 11-0-39-0 but at a young age, with all the talent in the World ready to be harnessed, there was a lot more to come.
He captained the England under 19 side in 1996 and 1997 and, in what seemed at the time a bold move, was picked to make his Test debut in 1998, aged just 20. This came just a month after hitting 61 from 24 balls, including 35 from one over, to help Lancashire chase down 250 in a championship match against Surrey. Wasim Akram said at the time that if Flintoff had been born in Pakistan, he would have been playing Test cricket already, referring to the practice on the subcontinent of picking players on potential rather than weight of runs or wickets.
1998 – 2002
Unfortunately, for the first two years following his debut, potential was all anyone really saw from Flintoff in both the international arena and in domestic cricket. By Flintoff’s own admission in “Being Freddie” (which can be summarised thus; “grew up, got good at cricket, got pissed a lot, got less good at cricket, stopped getting pissed, got good at cricket again, won the Ashes, got pissed.”) he struggled with his weight largely due to his new lifestyle, that of a 20 year professional international cricketer with money and a city centre pad, hard to cope with, opting for pizzas, currys and cans of beer rather than chicken, pasta and mineral water. It wasn’t a lifestyle that a 6′ 4″ frame could readily cope with and his weight ballooned to 19 stone which lead to two years of struggling with form and fitness and by 2000 his back was so bad he could barely bowl and many were beginning to lose patience with the precocious youngster who seemed to be in danger of eating and drinking away his talent without giving himself the chance to succeed.
Having missed the first match of the 2000 NatWest series injured, his, “not bad for a fat lad” jibe when picking up a man of the match award in the following game – for 42 runs against Zimbabwe for goodness sake, at this stage his most significant international innings – was further evidence of his lack of dedication, and disregard for the wishes of the England management It’s easy to look back on Flintoff’s career now and think, “aw, bless him” but at the time it was no laughing matter. Something had to change, and fast.
A year later nothing had changed. Flintoff was out of the English team and was almost out of the Lancashire team after a dressing room dressing down by the coach Bobby Simpson. His career, such as it was at the time, was in serious danger of petering out into nothing. It took intervention and an all or nothing ultimatum from his management team of Andrew Chandler and Neil Fairbrother for Flintoff to realise just how much danger he was in. He was sent, at his own request, to The ECB Academy run by Rod Marsh to live and breath cricket, lose weight and get fit in an environment where could do little else. He was recalled to England colours in the winter of 2001 when he was called to India, but whether the return came too soon or whether it just wasn’t his tour, he was in appalling form and became so frustrated that he broke down in tears in the dressing-room. He would later look back on this as a turning point in his career.
The 2002 New Zealand tour saw Flintoff make his maiden Test century and had a decent home summer although by the end of 2002, he had averaged just 19 with the bat and 47 with the ball in his career to date. The biggest moment of 2002 though happened off the field, when Flintoff met the lovely Rachel Woods in a sponsor’s tent. The love of a good woman seemed to do wonders for Flintoff, and he himself credits Rachel with finally getting his career going in the right direction.
2003 – 2006
This was Flintoff’s golden period. Having recovered from an operation on a hernia sustained on the 2002/2003 Ashes tour, he had time out away from cricket to concentrate solely on getting fit and starred in the 5 Test summer series against South Africa scoring a century and 3 fifties, including 95 in the remarkable comeback at the Oval, winning man of the series in the process. The tour of the Caribbean at the beginning of 2004 further raised Freddie’s stock, he scored a century, took a 5 wicket haul and continued to show that he could be a genuinely fast attacking bowler. In England’s victorious summer of 2004 Flintoff hit half centuries in every Test and continued to be England’s most potent weapon with the ball. He flew to South Africa for the 2004/2005 tour firmly established as England’s talisman, having finally begun to fulfil all his early promise. Injury was a concern by the end of that tour and a cricketing nation held its collective breath over his fitness for the Ashes, as we heard for the first time about that troublesome ankle.
All was well, and swapping his honeymoon for an intensive rehabilitation programme had him fit and firing and ready to capture the nations hearts during the greatest series ever. Enough has been written here and elsewhere about that so we don’t need to go into any more detail. Suffice to say that Flintoff’s all round performance evoked vivid memories of and inevitable comparisons with Botham in 1981, key moments including his Edgbaston twin fifties and 7 wickets in the match, including Langer and Ponting in one of the most perfect overs ever bowled in the 2nd innings, his century, his first against Australia, in the winning Test at Trentbridge, and 5 wickets in the 2nd innings at the Oval. Flintoff had become the first Englishman to claim over 20 wickets and 400 runs in a series as he finished with 24 wickets and 402 runs, enough to win him another man of the series award and the inaugural Compton-Miller Medal. The aftermath of this Ashes win, and Flintoff’s part in that, has become stuff of legend and although there were a few disapproving murmurings, there are not many would have begrudged him this blow out.
Flintoff’s star shone brightly for another year, he captained England in India in February 2006 due to the unavailability of Vaughan and Trescothick with success, doing enough to win another man of the series award and drawing the series courtesy of a series levelling win in Mumbai in which Flintoff contributed 100 runs and 4 wickets. Flintoff missed that home summer due to injury, losing the captaincy to Strauss, but won it back in time to travel as England captain down under for the 2006/2007 Ashes rematch.
2007 – July 2009
A 5-0 whitewash with a shadow of the 2005 side was too much for Flintoff to cope with on his own, and this tour was a Flintoff PR disaster. Hammered in the first Test, Flintoff was lucky to escape sanction when he arrived for a training session at the Adelaide Oval leading into the second Ashes Test at the end of 2006 clearly suffering the consequences of a heavy night out. Reports are that he could barley focus on the balls being hit to him for catching practice and had to have the bloke next to him throw them back in to Duncan Fletcher. It’s said the only reason he escaped sanction then was to preserve team unity early in the tour. Flintoff is further believed to have sought solace in the bar on a number of occasions throughout the tour and indeed Duncan Fletcher reports that a practice session had to be cancelled prior to the One Day Series in February, because the captain was worse for wear. This was not long before the infamous “Fredalo” incident in St Lucia which cost him the vice captaincy and made many question his worth around the side.
Flintoff would go on to miss every home Test in 2007 and had been plagued with almost constant injury ever since. As he announced his retirement on July 15th 2009 to concentrate on ODI and T20 cricket, only a fortnight after his latest black mark, for missing the team bus them morning after a dinner in Ypres, one can’t help but look back over the career of Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff and notice some uneasy parallels.
A promising youngster who looked as though his lifestyle might prevent him ever reaching his full potential as a cricketer, he became for a brief spell one of the World’s greatest. Building up from 2003 Flintoff peaked in the 2005 Ashes and achieved things no one would have imagined possible years before. He was England’s number one and undoubted star, in a team full of match winners he rose above them all. But almost as soon as that little urn had returned to English hands, the bubble began to burst. An increased workload on the field that came with being England’s go to bowler and talisman all rounder, the increased pressure off it with captaincy and media interest all became too much for the big lovable Northern lad and his career went into a decline from which it was never to recover. It’s almost as if Flintoff’s sole cricketing purpose was to regain the Ashes in 2005, and for that we should be eternally grateful, even if he does exit the Test arena leaving behind a hollow sense of unfulfilled promise, and tinge of regret for what might have been had his body allowed him to consistently be the player everyone can see he could have been. Or, perhaps more aptly, had he allowed his body to allow him to consistently be the player everyone can see he could have been.
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