Darren Corr provides some reflections on just what Freddie means to an Englishman Abroad
When the inevitable occurred and Andrew Flintoff finally retired the remnants of his broken body from all forms of cricket, my first reaction was to go straight to the DVD cabinet and pull out the sacred texts; namely the Ashes series of 2005 and 2009, treat myself to a bottle of Ferngrove chardonnay and a suitably ruminative viewing of those compelling, if gut dissolving days of glory.
When I arrived in Perth in 1989, a young Australian side was in the process of being efficiently dispatched 3-1 by the West Indies. Later that year they would embark upon a tour of England to take on the David Gower led English team in a bid to regain the Urn and atone for the sins of 87. The series against the West Indies had had competitive moments, particularly over the last two tests, but I believed, as did Vivien Richards, that the English at home would have too much experience for the emerging Australian team. What happened then and for the next 16 years can be likened to two versions of the snowball effect with one running in reverse. By the turn of the century it seemed like a snowflake was in suicidal combat with a very solidly constructed snowman.
Always an avid fan, I did, however, take pride in remaining aloof from zealous partisanship. I had learned to love the game in the early 1970s and had been a huge admirer of the 1972 and 1975 Australian touring sides under Ian Chappell, who I still believe remains one of the most underrated batsmen ever. The characters Chappell bought with him looked and seemed of the times; emanating hipness that was a void in the lives of the staid, parent lookalike throwbacks inhabiting the home colours. For the best part of two decades evenly matched sides swapped the urn and lost and regained players in revolutions and rebel tours. However, as 1989 became 1990–91, 1993, 1994–95, 1997, 1998–99, 2001 and 2002–03, a nationalism, albeit perverse, was reborn. This was fuelled not by the charges of arrogance laid against the teams from my adopted home, but from a simpler desire to see a great sporting contest rise from the….er, well you know.
Prior to the 2005 series, everyone was talking about the England revival and the remote possibility of a win. A friend from the old country was insistent on the phone that Flintoff, whom I had yet to actually see play, would make an impression. I was more circumspect. A work colleague who was no slouch in his knowledge of the game had seen parts of the recent South Africa and England series. He was emphatic in his view that neither of the teams was capable of laying a glove on the Australians: “Mate, they play 30% slower than the Aussies and there is no aggression”. Lords seemed to bear this out despite the violence of the initial English bowling, but the Edgbaston test saw Freddie emerge in all of his oddly demotic pomp as a genuine force of nature and from then on the Australians were consistently outplayed. Some of Flintoff’s bowling spells in 2005 rank with the finest I have ever seen, and also showed a side of him that his very ordinary demeanour concealed: an acutely sharp cricketing mind.
Unfortunately we all got totally carried away and the greatness promised by the class of 2005 dissolved in injury and inconsistency. Perhaps the sheer psychic will required to dislodge the Australian nemesis melted the brains of all concerned. What I do know is that the subsequent pissy arsed debacle of 2006/7 melted mine to a degree where I could not bear to even contemplate cricket for months.
This was Freddie fallen. The demands of captaining a side lacking the cohesiveness, and frankly the quality, of its 2005 vintage seemed beyond his conceptual framework. England flickered at Adelaide and a competitive series looked plausible until Warne and the fear took hold. After that he just looked nonplussed (disinterested?) and incapable of preventing the disintegration that followed.
Fast forward to 2009 and I was horrified by the decline in his physical prowess. I had always likened him to a stallion in that he was a bit slow to start but once all the muscles were warmed they acted like pistons and gave an impression of inexhaustibility. Now he looked a step from the knacker’s yard. To his credit, he gave everything his body would allow and still retained enough of his talismanic aura to freak out Ponting’s men at Lord’s. It was fitting that he should be the one to run out Ponting with a show of athleticism that betrayed the truth, and end as a winner in the contest that had defined him
2005 was unquestionably Flintoff’s zenith. Obviously the DVD packages upon which I have gazed so often have been edited to maximize the fabulous Freddie bits, but watching again those dark, magical spells of venom to Ponting, his crucial and brutal innings at Edgbaston and just his immensity of presence, makes me rate him as one of the great impact players. Flintoff is proof that the stats will never tell the whole story (the sheer volume of the modern game will hopefully kill the statistic as the sine qua non of greatness). Many other players have had a far more dramatic and/or bountiful runs and wickets influence, but, without resorting entirely to ooga booga, Flintoff had an aura based on brutal physicality, which was made tangible by an ability to hurt and liquefy the innards of opponent’s bodies and minds. I firmly believe that given the arena, occasion and the motivation he would compete comfortably with the greats of any era and not often made to look the “pretty good” player the stats dispassionately declare he was.
Ultimately Flintoff restored a sort of faith in English cricket in that he demonstrated; to me at least, that cricket had not drifted back into the ether of a past characterized by a limited constituency and acceptance of mediocrity. Ordinary blokes were still playing the game with passion and verve and that they and the game was still capable of producing a hero to inspire the next one. He also played a pivotal role in one of the greatest David and Goliath test series of all time thereby reviving an institution, which probably was on the brink of being administered the last rites.
Freddie, may your retirement be healthy, wealthy and wise.
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