Flintoff, a candidate for the awards ceremony

TED CORBETT

FAT may be a Feminist Issue as the book says; but surely in this age of super fitness too much tissue should never be a cricket issue.

Let's forgive the old-timers who carried their excesses on to the battlefield. W. G. Grace, Warwick Armstrong, Colin Milburn and Colin Cowdrey were men of stomach; great cricketers with either very slow metabolism or appetites based on the teachings of Gargantua.

You can understand it if the modern cricketer thought: "These iconic figures figured they could carry all that weight. Perhaps I can too. Another pint of beer, a large meat pie and chips and don't stint on the curry sauce please, waiter."

After all Shane Warne is not exactly slimmer of the year. Yet he has so many wickets he is bound to catch up with Courtney Walsh, he is such a good slip fielder that the Australians can afford to forget about Mark Waugh and all the beef he consumes is certainly used to give the ball a mighty bash.

But it cannot go on, can it? Particularly for those lesser mortals who need every artificial aid they can find to turn minimum talent into maximum results.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, made it clear before the start of the first Test against New Zealand that no-one can be a modern sportsman and look like a sumo wrestler. Usman Afzaal and James Ormond both came close to being sent home.

They turned up to join the Test squad overweight and undertrained, leaving Fletcher fuming. He wanted players ready to pitch straight into the warm-up matches but instead: "They have been caught out a little bit here and they have not been able to get up to match fitness as quickly as we would have liked," he said.

"It surprises me that they have not turned up as fit as they should be. Some of them did not adhere to their programmes as exactly as we would have liked."

Ormond's lack of fitness was demonstrated in a picture reminiscent of Ian Botham in those long-off days on tour in Australia when he was photographed at a swimming pool in the wine district of South Australia with far too much tummy hanging over his waistband.

At the same time the England and Wales Cricket Board - pausing only to wonder if Fletcher should have gone public with his criticisms - announced that Fletcher and the management team would be in sole charge from now on. In other words selection, discipline and all the ancillary bits that go to bring a national squad into a cohesive unit before a Test will be the direct responsibility of Fletcher and Co.

That is bad news for those on a high-calorie diet. There is already a suggestion from the ECB suits that Afzaal and Ormond have played their last game for England, although if injuries kick in they may have played in all three Tests.

One man who will see no humour in this situation is Brian Bolus, the chairman of the new panel that is now in direct control of the Test side.

Brian Bolus is an old-fashioned Yorkshireman who, although he makes a witty speech and turns a neat phrase on after-dinner occasions, believes cricket is a serious matter.

You only have to look at his smart, 68-year-old blazered figure to know that he will not tolerate slackness of any sort. In his playing days as captain of Derbyshire he ordered his paceman Harold Rhodes off the field because he refused to bowl. "I could not afford to let him defy me," he recalls.

In his retirement he is always smartly turned out, slim from a diet that allows but one cup of tea for breakfast, little food for the rest of the day, regular rounds of golf and holidays that consist of long walks.

He is also extremely precise about politeness, punctuality and perseverance. If the England players need a role model for their off-field behaviour pattern they should look to Bolus who also happens to know a great deal about the way cricket matches can be manipulated. He should after learning at the feet of the wise old pros at Yorkshire and years leading Nottinghamshire as well as Derbyshire.

Ray Illingworth, in his days as emperor of everything eight years ago, insisted on Bolus being one of his panel. Now Bolus ranks second only to Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the Board, and his influence grows by the day. He and milord had a stormy start; now MacLaurin sometimes defers to him.

The result is that if any player thinks, because Bolus has a twinkle in his eye, that he is a soft touch, they may become disillusioned. With a man like that at the head of affairs there is every chance for the heroes and not much hope for the slackers.

It may be old-style but it works and as long as England exist without a Botham as all-rounder, a Peter May to score their runs and a Godfrey Evans to snatch catches from leg slip's pocket, it is the only way forward.

That is why it is a pleasure to see the change that has come over Andrew Flintoff. He went to Adelaide this autumn to join the new, makeshift English Cricket Academy and was less than 100 per cent fit, as judged by that exacting coach Rod Marsh. Flintoff has come through the process and prospered. He may not have made many runs in the England series in New Zealand but he bowled beautifully and in the final matches in India showed every one of the all-rounder talents.

He has maintained his weight loss and he not only looks stronger and more determined but his new-found fitness has enabled him to demonstrate the strength, the strokes and the eyesight which have always been evident but rarely been allowed to flower.

Fletcher says: "Flintoff is now a really good example for other people out there who live in the comfort zone. They can see that if you are prepared to put the effort in the rewards will come to you in the end."

Much of England's future hangs around Flintoff's huge neck. If he succeeds, if he goes any way towards earning the title of Botham II, or, better still, if he wins a Test match, he can make all the difference to the future of English cricket.

At the moment there is more talk about curling, bowls on ice to the uninitiated, than cricket. Four Scottish ladies won the curling title at the winter Olympics and were promoted to heights beyond their wildest nightmares.

The English newspapers began to call them "British" which is a form of salute to Scottish athletes who achieve Olympic glory; they are quoted on every subject under the sun; and they deserve to win one of the many titles handed out by various organisations every year for The Greatest This and The Finest That.

So cricket takes a back seat. One of the largest British newspapers, with a readership steeped in the game, has no staff reporter in New Zealand; several Sunday newspapers have no intention of sending one.

Even when David Byas, the Yorkshire captain who retired last September to concentrate on farming, left his cows behind and joined Lancashire the papers gave a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders and told us even more about football, the national obsession. There is no longer a War of the Roses but it has caused the fans of Yorkshire, led to the county championship title last year by Byas, to talk about the end of life as they knew it. In the good old days, of course.

Lord's held a prolonged inquiry into Lancashire's handling of John Crawley's wish to leave - legally backed up by Cherie Blair, wife of the Prime Minister - but the papers told us about David Beckham, Posh Spice and David Ginola. Lancashire cannot afford to let Crawley go since Mike Atherton has left and Neil Fairbrother needs an operation.

If Flintoff can break the Lancashire or England mould he will be a hero from Lord's to Leeds, one of the wealthiest players in the country and a candidate to replace the curling ladies in the awards ceremonies.

Surely well worth a prolonged diet, an extra visit to the gym each week and being marked absent from the bar.