With Richard Dickinson
If all had gone well, we would have seen the return of Andrew Flintoff to England's Test team today. We've read quite a lot about Flintoff lately, and indeed over the past year during the time he's been out of Test match action. He's copped a fair bit of criticism since the end of the 2006/07 Ashes, some fair enough, some not. Fair enough, for example, that his batting has gone into a fairly long decline - no century in any form of cricket since August 2005, a batting average of 25.08 in his last 8 Tests. Not fair enough that he's an awful batsman.
Anyway, two things seem to be said quite a lot:
He's a one-series wonder.
So. Overrated. I find this interesting. I've probably overrated him in the past, everyone knows that to me Fred walks on water. But let's be honest, where do I do most of my cricket talk? I've got a couple of mates in work that I discuss it with; aside from that, CricketWeb. Wouldn't have thought I would be the only member of the CricketWeb forum
who is in this boat. And common consensus seems to be that he is an awesome bowler, but should probably bat at number seven for England now that they have a half-decent top six. Obviously some folk think he should bat eight; it's even been suggested that Stuart Broad should bat above him. Some people still want him at six. Overwhelming opinion, however, seems to be that if he plays he bats seven. But also that if he plays, he bowls, and that England are so much stronger for it - provided he stays fit. Without Flintoff, England play with a bowling line-up of Ryan Sidebottom, James Anderson, Broad and Monty Panesar (with plenty still favouring Matthew Hoggard over Anderson). It's decent, but it's not awesome. Replace Anderson with Flintoff and most England fans are foaming at the mouth. There's actually a fair case to leave out Panesar, at least early in the summer, and play both Hoggard and Anderson. While it's realistic to say that won't happen, nonetheless the sheer quality of Flintoff makes England's bowling unit look so much better. When he is fit, he is comfortably better than any seam bowler still playing.
Anyhow, we digress. Overrated? To me, all the nonsense we read about how he's not fit to lace Mohammad Rafique's boots suggests people have decided to jump on him because he has not played a Test in 17 months. The fact that he hasn't played a Test in so long somehow means he is bad at them. Well it's utter rubbish, he is a fine Test cricketer, he is one of the best in the world when fully fit and if he plays the summer this year then everyone will very probably be picking him in their bi-monthly World XI teams again. Just as Michael Vaughan was virtually written-off by so many having missed 18 months of Test cricket before his dramatic return last summer, it seems people have forgotten just how good the good can be purely because of a long lay-off.
Also, when Flintoff last played a Test there were many questions asked about how good he actually was. Common view was that he was a bowling all-rounder in Tests who shouldn't have been batting in the top six but that in ODIs he was a World-class all-rounder. These days everyone seems to dismiss his ODI batting as well, even though he's only played a handful of those in the last 14 months too.
And after the 2007 World Cup he was cited as a huge flop. Sure, he did indeed flop with the bat, but his bowling was good, with an economy-rate of 4.31-an-over and an average of 21.28 (against serious opposition the average went up, but only to 26, and the economy-rate came down to 4.15). Seems completely unfair, then, to call him a flop. His batting at the Cup was not good enough, yet he was damned for being an all-rounder: England should not have been relying on their best bowler to score runs. It recalled the situation of the 2002/03 Ashes, when Craig White was derided as poor because he could barely scrape a run (at least, until the Fourth Test), despite the fact he was easily England's most impressive bowler.
So no, I don't think Flintoff is overrated. He seriously needs to address his batting form, but I've still seen him bat fantastically, not only in The Ashes 2005 but in India early the following year too. And his bowling? Show me a better seam bowler that's still playing. You might be able to show me a few you think are better or might one day be better, but how many? Not very many, because if you look up "World-class seam bowler" in the dictionary, there is a picture of our Fred rather than any words defining the term.
Now to the other, and this is an even more major gripe. When people say he is a one-series wonder. Let's look at this one.
In the 2005 Ashes, Flintoff averaged 40.20 with the bat and 27.29 with the ball, rightly applauded as a tremendous effort, seeing as it was against the best side in the World and played by far the largest role in England's utter domination of them and all. Take only the last four Tests, after his side were hammered in the first and he struggled, and it was 49.87 and 24.10. His banal overall career averages are 32.50 and 32.02 with bat and ball respectively, so yes, that series was a performance some way above his overall career record. However, we all know two things about Flintoff:
One: he was picked far too early, and his performances between 1998 and 2000 are as good as meaningless when assessing him later on. You might as well talk about how relatively poor Don Bradman was at the age of 15 - only difference there is that the Australian selectors weren't dumb enough to pick the childhood prodigy until he'd won his spurs. Yes, Flintoff was 20 when he made his Test debut, but Flintoff is also a considerably lesser cricketer than Bradman. Nonetheless, David Graveney and co simply saw him wallop 34 off an over in the County Championship and he was straight into the fray for two crucial Tests against South Africa. To me, Flintoff's 233 runs at 16.64 and 7 wickets at 55 in his nine Tests between '98 and '00 are utterly irrelevant.
Two: after his recall in 2001/02 following a reassessment of his priorities, his efforts visibly redoubled. It took a while for his performances to follow suit, however, and in the eight months and 12 Tests between December 2001 and August 2002, he still averaged just 21.57 with bat and 45.03 with ball. Yet Flintoff is far from alone in struggling in his first year in Test cricket, in fact far more players than not tend to take a little while to adjust to the rise in standard.
The first signs of Flintoff's ankle problems surfaced in September 2002, when he missed the last Test against India and the entire aforementioned 2002/03 Ashes series. He returned to the Test team at the end of July 2003. Since then, in 43 Tests for England against serious opposition, he has averaged 38.95 with the bat and 30.45 with the ball
. And the first five and last four of these Tests were wretched with the ball: take only the 34 in the middle and his bowling average is 27.05
. This quite clearly shows that The Ashes 2005 was no fluke, it was no statistical anomaly, it was merely ever so slightly above his form over the past and following years, and the performance of a true all-rounder.
I hope you've seen my point. To me, Flintoff is a terrific cricketer, I am desperate to see him play a few more years as he will surely delight us once again like no other can if he manages to do so. Put simply, I think he is the best English cricketer of his generation. The Botham comparisons never did do him any favours, but he is the greatest personality and all-rounder we have had in our game since him. I hate the way everyone is so quick to jump on him these days, it is such an English thing to. Let us bow down to him when he wins us The Ashes and jump on him when he has battles with bowling-related injuries that collide with a severe loss of form with the blade.
Andrew Flintoff is not overrated; the way some go on about him, he is very severely underrated. Andrew Flintoff did not just have one great series, he had a few great years. He would have been playing Test cricket again today but for that side-strain - whenever he finally manages to shake-off both his ankle troubles and this strain, let the country say: "welcome back Fred, you have been missed". And may his comeback performances mirror those of his captain last summer.