FLINTOFF MUST BE HIS CHARMING SELF IN AUSTRALIA

ANDREW FLINTOFF... cricket's best ambassador.-AP

England's captain is admired in Australia, too, as a fellow who plays the game with gusto, but never tramples cricket's spirit in his response to a challenge, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Subtlety, alas, is not one of Graeme Smith's numerous gifts. Indeed, he is the sort of fellow who, on entering a china shop, finds even the bulls slink out. Moreover, indulging in cheap slanging matches with Shane Warne as he did last year down under is not exactly proof of wisdom. Now the South African captain is handing out advice to Andrew Flintoff on how to handle Australia!!!

Australian cricket is an uncommon examination of patience and determination since its hardy team, relentless media, and roaring crowd often work as one force. The occasional media cheerleading is mildly disturbing, but it is the descent into coarseness by sections of the crowd that is alarming. Smith, understandably, is still smarting from the racist abuse his team took 12 months ago, and, like Dean Jones, who has already changed his story, the crowd must not be let off the hook.

Smith insists that England's response to the crowd will be its biggest test this summer. He is not entirely wrong, and some English writers have smartly already reversed the pressure and put it on the cricket crowd (which certainly was not representative of the usually excellent Australian spectator). Indeed, much note-taking will be done this Australian summer not only of Flintoff's response but the crowd's provocation. As much as pre-judging a crowd may seem unfair, Australia's cricket audience must demonstrate the idiots among them are a minority that they, too, will not tolerate.

Still, for Flintoff to walk off the plane his face grim, nostrils flaring and mouth yapping, as Smith seemed to do last year, would be counter-productive, absurd and out of character. Instinctively, this fellow is a charmer, who makes friends as easily as he swats balls towards Pluto and is cricket's best ambassador with a bad hair-cut. The game has few such appealing characters, and unlike many Western cricketers Flintoff has not merely the grudging respect of many sub-continental cricketers but their affection. Murali, for instance, will never forget Flintoff's confrontation of an Australian spectator on his behalf during the ICC Super Series last year.

England's new captain is also admired in Australia as a fellow who plays the game with gusto, but never tramples cricket's spirit in his response to a challenge. His comforting of Brett Lee during the Ashes last time has become widely spoken about, though cricket might ask itself why a fine but simple gesture should merit so much comment. Has cricket gone so far that even a routine act of sportsmanship needs to be exaggerated?

Smith's response to arriving in a tough Australia last year was to talk even tougher. If he could sledge a pitch, he'd do it. He is a young man, only learning his craft, but discourtesy fits no country's captain. Smith apparently believes in the tactic wherein you rile everyone in 200 miles, insult the opposing captain, call his team chokers, take all the abuse, but in doing so protect your team from all the attention. Now he has more or less recommended this to Flintoff.

It seems a preposterous tactic, yet it was endorsed by his coach Mickey Arthur, who said then: "Graeme thought he would drop a couple of bombs... because that would take the pressure off... It was very, very noble. He took the pressure off the team totally and put all the pressure on himself." As a result of such noble gestures, rarely (and from both sides) has there been a more puerile tour than South Africa's visit to Australia.

Flintoff must avoid such footsteps, not walk in them. Australian and South African cricket, anyway, are brimming with macho posturing, which has its own beauty. But it is sport somewhat absent of joy, and that is the anti-Freddie. Eventually captains and teams must be what they are, be true to themselves, play their own game, not wear an unfamiliar cloak.

England did not win the Ashes by behaving aggressively but playing aggressively. India did the same when it toured down under some years ago and failed by a few wickets to win the series. No boorish words were exchanged during that series, but certainly flamboyant cricket was to be seen. Cricket does not have to be rude to be competitive. Not that everyone is convinced. One section of Australia's former cricketers has said their team was "too matey" during the last Ashes series. Fortunately, Ponting and his men have rubbished this claim.

Smith's approach last year produced a spectacular backfire. Firstly, insulting Australia's cricketers is like dripping blood in the water. Even Kepler Wessels told Smith to hush, saying then: "There's no better way to fire up an Australian team than talking about them before the match. You have to look at teams that have beaten Australia in the past and you will see that someone like Clive Lloyd never made statements like that before." More vitally, it interrupted Smith's focus, and a fine batsman with a healthy Test average of just under 50, averaged 25.83 for the tour.

England cannot absorb similar failure from Flintoff, it cannot allow for him to be distracted. The Australians are so wonderfully gifted, so disciplined, so committed, an opponent must constantly have his wits about him. The taunts will come, but a man need not respond. Naturally Flintoff will out-charm most around him, and only if he is himself does he have a chance to out-cricket Australia.