An amalgam of talent and temperament

THERE are times when you have to burn yourself to fly again. Andy Flower has done just that.

S. DINAKAR

Andy Flower... bitter end to a glorious career.-Pic. AP

THERE are times when you have to burn yourself to fly again. Andy Flower has done just that.

To pursue his passion he has broken links with Zimbabwean cricket, but in dividing his time between South Australia and Essex this fiercely committed man will at least be continuing his association with the game. He will start his life all over again in Australia and England, picking up the pieces of a career that had gone wrong just when the evening hue was setting in.

Towards the end of his journey for Zimbabwe, he was both angry and hurt. The political turmoil in his country meant he could no longer remain a silent spectator and being a strong-willed man he had to act.

In deciding to voice his protest at the throttling of democracy in Zimbabwe, by sporting a black armband along with team-mate Henry Olonga during the World Cup game against Namibia, he was effectively putting in line his stint as an international cricketer.

Soon, he was no longer wanted in a country, which he had served so loyally over the years. That did not matter to him. Andy was making a statement with Olonga and the whole cricketing world took notice.

There were times during the World Cup when his mind no longer seemed to be in cricket and, indeed, Andy ran as if there was no tomorrow in the Group `A' game against India at Harare. That day he did appear a disillusioned man, lacking in motivation and spirit.

Being as tenacious as they come, the left-hander did produce a quality 62 subsequently, countering Australia's impressive attack at Bulawayo. It was an innings blending offence and defence, the hallmark of his game really.

He appeared in splendid touch during his final innings for Zimbabwe, at East London, collecting runs on the chase with clinical efficiency at the expense of the Sri Lankans, before being undone by a doubtful leg-before decision.

Andy took off his headgear for one last time at the world stage, and even as he walked back with his head held high, his team-mates stood to applaud this proud cricketer. The respect Andy evokes is spontaneous... to Zimbabwe he's been inspirational.

Ironically, it was against Sri Lanka during World Cup '92 that Andy won his first ODI cap, notching up an unbeaten 115 at New Plymouth as the Zimbabweans, in pursuit of 300 plus, managed to give the islanders a scare.

Those were the days of much hope and sunshine in Zimbabwean cricket and Andy was the bright young wicket-keeper batsman with dreams in his eyes and fire in his veins. A cricketer with an amalgam of talent and temperament.

When Zimbabwe was granted Test status in '92, Andy responded with a typically fighting 59 against the Indians at Harare. It was evident that here was someone who would put a price on his wicket.

So did his brother Grant, a right-hander, who too possessed the ability to wear down attacks and then assume command. With a senior professional like David Houghton around as well, there was so much spunk about the Zimbabwean batting then.

Andy's job was tougher than of the rest, especially after he decided to take up wicket-keeping full time. Physically it would be demanding and Andy worked on his fitness. The strength in his wiry frame was a huge factor in his success; he could 'keep for hours and then begin his marathon stints with the willow.

On the tour of India in 2000-2001, when Andy was at his peak, his run was truly remarkable — 183 not out and 70 in the Delhi Test, and 55 and 232 not out at Nagpur. The conditions were hot and dry, and the sheer workload on him as a 'keeper and the side's premier batsman was enormous. He did not wilt.

That was also a series where all of Andy's intelligence with the willow could be gleamed. On wickets where the ball turned and gripped, he used the sweep shot to great effect to unsettle the spinners. Few batsmen have essayed the reverse sweep better that this southpaw and he could so easily force the bowlers to shift their line. The wily Zimbabwean played the ball late and this allowed him to be creative and innovate.

A majority of Andy's runs came behind the cover-point and mid-wicket areas and he would cut, pull, drive and flick the bowlers into submission, not to forget his iron clad defence of either foot that could leave both the pacemen and spinners frustrated.

Give him the slightest of width on either side of the wicket and the bowler would be punished, while the errors in length would be quickly pounced upon by Andy with horizontal bat strokes.

Teams burned midnight oil to find chinks in his armour. Andy was not the most fluent of drivers in front of the wicket and the feeling was that if he could be drawn to the front foot, without being provided the width or the length, he could be contained and then after the runs dried up he could be forced into committing an error.

These hopes proved futile. Andy possessed loads of patience and he would wait and wait, concentrating hard, before the bowler finally succumbed. A courageous customer against pace and canny while countering spin, Andy's 4794 runs in 63 Tests at a highly creditable average of 51.55 tell their story. This slenderly built man was the heavyweight in the Zimbabwean top and middle order.

If there was one moment that he would cherish forever, it had to be his 156 in Harare in 1994, where he dismantled the much-vaunted Pakistani attack along with Grant, who rattled up a double-hundred. And Zimbabwe romped home, the country's first win in Test cricket.

A competent wicket-keeper, Andy had his stints with captaincy as well and was known to be a demanding task-master, who would be satisfied with nothing but the best from his men.

Given the nature of his batting it was only natural that Andy was a more accomplished Test cricketer. However, he had his triumphs in the ODIs too (6786 in 213 games at 35.34), when he enabled his side recover from impossible situations. Under pressure, he thrived.

One such effort was his blazing 145 at Colombo's Premadasa Stadium during the ICC Champions Trophy last year, when he feasted on the Indian bowling even as the others departed in quick succession. India clinched the duel in a close finish. However, Andy walked tall that night.

The feature of his batting was the ease with which he adjusted to the pitches — the seam and bounce in Australia and the dusty spinning surfaces of the sub-continent. And even during phases when he could not really dominate Andy could still tuck and push 'em for the ones and the twos; he could work the ball around wonderfully well.

Turning out for a mediocre side bearing the enormous weight of expectations on his shoulders without ever flinching, the 34-year-old Andy proved exceptionally resilient and durable, a superstar without the halo or the aura of one. A modest man with extraordinary feats.

And now he will be seen no more on the international stage. But then, the Zimbabwean had to make a hard choice. Andy Flower decided to burn himself to fly again.