Freddie Blood Axe has arrived

At last there is a cricketer who already dwarfs Ian Botham physically. If he can match that great man's figures on the field Andrew Flintoff (pix, below) will fulfil all the dreams of those who have waited so long for the new Botham to lead an England revival, writes TED CORBETT.

WHEN Andrew Flintoff removes his helmet to acknowledge the applause of the crowd — an experience he has had regularly during England's recent one-day successes — you can imagine him as a Viking warrior.

He has the massive physique, the mass of blond locks and the unsophisticated wish to inflict dreadful damage on his foes.

A thousand years ago he might have been known as Freddie Blood Axe. Today he is seen as one of the most dangerous all-rounders in international cricket.

The game has always offered a special admiration for the man who scores runs and takes wickets.

W. G. Grace bowled in a variety of styles as well as accumulating thousands of runs. That daredevil batsman and accomplished fast bowler Keith Miller added a much-needed touch of colour to the lives of spectators watching post-war Tests.

In the 1960s Gary Sobers became the greatest of them all, offering quick left arm bowling, medium pace swing, orthodox slow left arm spin and even a Chinaman and its googly to record-breaking batsmanship.

England's finest was Ian Botham whose phenomenal strength, keen eye and often classy shots enabled him to break six-hitting records, bowl thoughtful swing mixed with a fast bouncer and, as if living by the motto Who Dares Wins, pull off astonishing feats in memorable Ashes Tests.

Now Flintoff, known as Freddie after the cartoon character Fred Flintstone, threatens to join the ranks of the great all-rounders.

Flintoff is greatly influenced by the new one-day captain Michael Vaughan, a more sober character, and there is hope that when Vaughan takes charge from Nasser Hussain we will see much more of Flintoff, both as a bowler and as a batsman playing long innings rather than the cameos that have been his forte in the past.-Pic. STU FORSTER/GETTY IMAGES

He has already achieved one feat we had begun to think might never happen. He has filled the vacancy left by Botham when he stopped being a full-time international cricketer at the end of the triumphant 1986-7 tour of Australia.

The title The New Botham first fell on the shoulders of David Capel and then went to Phil DeFreitas and later to Chris Lewis. For all sorts of reasons these three could not hang on to the title and in the end Lewis used to say rather wearily: "I'm the first Chris Lewis not the second Ian Botham."

At this moment it looks as if Flintoff, all 6ft 4in, and carefully-trimmed 15 stone of him, is ready to fill the Botham boots; at least in the one-day game. He is already third in the world ranking list of all-rounders behind Jacques Kallis and Chris Gayle; by the end of the year he may be England vice-captain under Michael Vaughan.

Certainly, if he maintains his improvement, be one of the nucleus of players around whom England turn into New England: young, charismatic and winners.

First, Flintoff needs to improve a pitiful Test record which would be better if his batting and bowling averages were reversed. His batting brings only 19.48 runs an innings and his bowling in 21 Tests has produced only 33 wickets at 47.15; in contrast with his one-day international figures of 1,298 runs at a respectable 27.04 and 59 wickets at an economical 26.02.

The rebirth of Flintoff is remarkable. He returned from the winter still not sure he had recovered from a hernia operation; then he was hit on the elbow in the nets and missed the Tests against Zimbabwe. There were still question marks against him when he was picked for the one-day series although those who saw him daily with Lancashire were sure he was ready, willing and able.

By the end no-one had any doubt about his right to be man of the NatWest series. His every appearance either as batsman or bowler was greeted with that sustained buzz that says "Now we can anticipate a memorable turn of events''. He turned matches, he was always a menacing presence and by the time he was on the pitch at the end of the final he had achieved as much by way of consistency as any all-rounder can expect.

He was every bit as much the focus of the crowd's attention as Botham was in the mid-1980s when it was said Botham could empty the bars at every cricket ground in the country. In just 27 days Flintoff showed that he was the man of the hour.

Against Pakistan in the NatWest Challenge he scored 39, 26 not out off 13 balls with six fours and a final score of 4. He had nought for 23 off 10 overs, one for 36 off eight and four for 32 off 10. How complete an all-round performance is that: 69 runs for twice out and five wickets for 91 runs and an economy rate a touch above four an over.

In the tri-series he simply raced ahead of Kallis even though that stylish South African batsman made more than 300 runs in the series; and without support Heath Streak lost too many matches for his brave efforts to be recognised. As man of the series he had to have something special as summed up by Paul Collingwood, the injured Durham batsman.

England's finest all-rounder was Ian Botham (second from left) whose phenomenal strength, keen eye and often classy shots enabled him to break six-hitting records, bowl thoughtful swing mixed with a fast bouncer and, as if living by the motto who Dares Wins, pull off astonishing feats in Ashes Tests.-Pic. ADRIAN MURRELL/GETTY IMAGES

After a tour with Flintoff, Collingwood reported: "He does not know his own strength. You end up having joke fights at the bar and he will nearly kill you. He hits the ball as hard as I have ever seen.''

But it was not just the runs and the wickets but the manner of the man that impressed itself on the opposition. It is the forward defensive push that hits the boundary edge hard, the bouncer that rushes past the batsman, the flying slip catch like the blinding effort that took out Kallis for nought at Edgbaston.

These are the marks of a different player. Botham did it, Sobers did it, Miller and even further back W. G. Grace did it. Turned a match upside down by their own magic power.

The all-rounder who makes us gasp in 2003 has had a hard slog on his way to the top.

Once Flintoff was a fat boy whose weight may once — if we are to believe the wildest tales — have ballooned up to 19st and who famously weighed in for a Test at 17st 12lb, the best weight of Lennox Lewis, the heavyweight champion of the world.

As he attempted to recover from the hernia operation last year there were stories of bad behaviour in the National Sports Centre in Lilleshall and Lord MacLaurin, then chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, made a not too well disguised admission that he was furious.

In the end no action was taken against either him or his supposed accomplice Darren Gough but there is no doubt that someone, somewhere took Flintoff to one side and told him he had to be more disciplined.

Perhaps it was youthful exuberance — after all, although he has been playing for England for five years, Flintoff is only 24 — and in every interview he gives now Flintoff emphasises how much he has matured, how much he sees the need for a proper diet, a more professional approach and more consistent performances.

In fact it is part of the attraction, part of the reason why the crowd go "Oooooh'' whenever he goes on to bowl or in to bat that you never know what to expect from this outgoing young man. Sometimes he is drawn into a big shot too early but it is much rarer now for him to bowl foolishly.

He is greatly influenced by Vaughan, a more sober character, and there is hope that when Vaughan takes charge from Nasser Hussain we will see much more of Flintoff, both as a bowler and as a batsman playing long innings rather than the cameos that have been his forte in the past.

In the last year the pounds have dropped off him, he appears to have paid attention to those who were more concerned about him being overweight than those who told him he would lose strength if he lost weight and, frankly, he just looks more like an athlete.

I remember the first time I heard the words Andrew Flintoff. They were spoken by David Lloyd, in his period as England coach, in reply to a question about the lack of young talent in England.

"I don't know if any of you have heard the name Andrew Flintoff,'' Lloyd replied. "He's a big lad and I happen to think he can play a bit too.''

Flintoff had by this time been rechristened "Freddie'' by the same Lancashire dressing room who devised Mike Atherton's nickname FEC — for Future England Captain.

Flintstone was out of the Stone Age, wielding a stone hammer, driving a car with stone wheels, living in a cave. Flintoff came from Preston, an old, slow town 40 miles north of Manchester, once at the heart of the Lancashire cotton industry, now trying to adjust to the 21st century.

There is a saying thereabouts that rare occurrences happen as ``often as Preston Guild'' a market which is scheduled once every 10 years and sometimes misses a decade or two. Like the reappearance of a top-class England all-rounder in fact.

At last there is a cricketer who already dwarfs Botham physically. If he can match that great man's figures on the field Flintoff will fulfil all the dreams of those who have waited so long for the new Botham to lead an England revival.