Messiah of the summer sport

Flintoff is from the age when cricket, and sport in general, had not been engulfed by sombre greats who harped on focus, concentration and single-mindedness without realising that these can coexist with the diverse pleasures of life.

N. U. ABILASH

ANDREW FLINTOFF is a cricketer trapped in a footballer's body. Every unit of high-octane energy and power, produced in the cells inside the 6ft 4in tall, sixteen and a half stone heavy frame and electrifying grounds across the United Kingdom this summer, is an insurrection against the relatively minimalist physical requirements structurally placed by the bat and ball game on its high-performance practitioners even during these Twenty20 days.

However, at a time when England's best-known footballers are projected as either vulgar personifications of consumerist excesses or spoilt brats or plain yobs, (with the exception of Michael Owen, who seems to have stretched his image of `Mr. Congeniality' to obsessive limits this season in `managing' his desired move out of Madrid) Flintoff's mental and moral coordinates very much conform to the gentlemanly code his profession expects. Here is a person who is the best of both the cricket and football worlds. An instant folk hero.

The Lancastrian is just the right man to mount a serious challenge to David Beckham and Wayne Rooney as the most recognisable English sporting hero. And, helping him this summer are his actions in an Ashes series that has captured the public imagination of the whole of England in such a way that the start of the Premiership season went off the back pages of the national broadsheets and tabloids. Fight fire with fire, goes the adage. At last, after Ian Botham's best days, the beleaguered summer game, trying hard to shed its esoteric, white, middle class image, has found its man to tackle England's number one sport.

Botham, the hero of the 1981 Ashes series, which is as much part of the English sporting mythology as Wembley 1966, had a football connection — the all-rounder played as a non-contracted player with Scunthorpe United to keep himself fit for the cricket season. So had Denis Compton, the first England cricketer this side of W. G. Grace, flowing beard et al to become a sporting superstar (Arsenal and England). Flintoff's earthy Lancashire working class origins, and heavy accent, also bind him to football — he was born and brought up in Preston, where the National Football Museum is located, where Manchester United star Ryan Giggs has a house and where England's 1950s legend Tom Finney was born (the great Stanley Matthews, Finney's teammate who enjoyed the spotlight more, was born in neighbouring Blackburn, also in Lancashire). So does his very spontaneous imitation of Giggs' goal-scoring ritual of taking off his shirt and twirling it in the air after winning a tight one-dayer against India in Mumbai in 2001.

It is not known whether Flintoff goes around squirting water pistols at teammates in team hotels and dressing rooms like Botham, his illustrious predecessor, to dissipate the huge reservoirs of energy that has not been released on the cricket field. But, the man nicknamed `Freddie' after the popular character in the television animation series titled The Flintstones might not need to be naughty always given his total commitment to the modern training regimen, for which Botham was not well known.

Besides, Flintoff is bowling now at 90 mph, which is faster than Botham at his peak and he has recently broken Botham's English record of most sixes in an Ashes Test in England's series-levelling two-run win in Edgbaston (he smote 9 in both innings to Botham's six in Headingley `81). John Stern, editor of Wisden Cricketer, said in a recent interview, "The most box office aspect of cricket is being able to hit the ball really hard and a long way, which Flintoff does."

In the age of modern televised sport, it is easy to mistake commercial presence, and by extension good looks, as a sign of popularity. Flintoff's masculinity, pierced ear, tattoo and tonsured head, just like Rooney's masculine athleticism and Beckham's `metrosexual' good looks, have got him the product endorsements — Red Bull was drawn to him like bee to honey, though the same cannot be said of Barclays Capital and Volkswagen.

Flintoff, it must be said though, is not a slave of new age television sport, which has raised the stakes considerably for players forcing them to abandon elements of play, pleasure and romance on the field and which has systemically scripted their actions and approaches along the patterns demanded by capitalist and military work. Whether it be his back-flip after dismissing Shane Warne in Old Trafford, his pony strut after dismissing the great leg-spinner in Edgbaston, his smiles at the Aussie batsmen who play and miss, or his sheepish grins at the Aussie bowlers when he gets beaten, he has reclaimed for cricket a small space of the huge kingdom that sport in general has lost because of commercial invasions.

Flintoff's playful digressions during a typical day in office are founded on the tried and tested English principles of underplay, and not on hyperbole and theatricals (a la Gascoigne), which are made to order for the television age, when colour will always be saleable because it stands in contrast to the highly regimented professional work ethic. Essayist, academic, and Lancashire fan Lincoln Allison writes that Flintoff's approach to the game is in no way different when he represents his county before a handful of spectators in a non-televised match. "There was this match in Edgbaston in 1999 when Lancs were visiting. At the time, Flintoff was a bit out of shape and the small number of young Warks supporters in the ground naughtily drove this home by offering him chocolates. Flintoff chatted with them, took the chocolates, ate it and gave them feedback. At that moment, my sons were completely bowled over and swore to be his life-long fans."

As Allison writes, "It is this image of being slower, bigger and nicer than the rest of the society that has stuck to Flintoff, and that has endeared him to English masses." (The Lancashire dressing room, the source behind his nickname, has a cruel sense of humour: Fred Flintstone is the big-made, adorable caveman husband of Wilma Flintstone; he works as a crane operator in a quarry company and lives in a fictional prehistoric city where dinosaurs coexisted with cavemen, who enjoyed primitive versions of modern devices such as telephones and cars.) The `gentle giant' is not projected as a rebel — he is not fast enough like Botham to be caught up in controversies. He is described as happy taking wife and daughter to a slow, remote place — it was Devon after the defeat at Lord's — to escape from the spotlight.

Flintoff has the potential to break many batting and bowling records.-AP

Flintoff is from the age when cricket, and sport in general, had not been engulfed by sombre greats who harped on focus, concentration and single-mindedness without realising that these can coexist with the diverse pleasures of life. Flintoff has the potential to break many Australian batting and bowling records in his career, which was 50 Tests old in the Ashes Test in his home ground of Old Trafford. But, he is also being spoken of in his country, which has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the whole of Europe, as the prime candidate to mount a real threat to David Boon's record of 52 cans of beer on an Anglo-Australian flight.

It is widely believed in the cricket world that Boon broke the record of Rodney Marsh, but it could so well have been that of Botham himself — the Aussies are such hard-nosed competitors that they do not believe in handing any record, even a beer drinking one, on a platter to an Englishman, and woe betide if that Englishman happens to be a self-confessed Aussie hater. Like Botham, who could have been in any World Eleven of his age notwithstanding the presence of Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee and Kapil Dev, Flintoff was an automatic choice of the World XI selectors for October's ICC Super Series against Australia. His response was marked not by swagger or braggadocio.

"I'm going to be like a kid in a sweet shop. I'll be taking my autograph book and I won't know where to put myself," he said. Any scribe hoping to get a similar response from Botham would be barking up the wrong tree.

However, like Botham, Flintoff is quick enough to recognise individual struggle, chivalry and bravery — the bear hug he gave the courageous Brett Lee after England's two-run win in Edgbaston is as much a tribute to the Aussie's resilience with the bat, taking several blows and edging close to the fourth innings target in the company of last man Michael Kasprowicz, as it is a testament to the England allrounder's unflinching conformism to cricket's moral code, which The Guardian football writer Kevin McCarra writes was present in football when Pele and Bobby Moore were still players. (It would not be entirely inappropriate to recall Botham's great on-field battles with Viv Richards and his open appreciation of his Somerset teammate even when he was an opponent wearing the maroon cap.)

Talking about Botham, Flintoff recognises these very attributes as those that created history in 1981. "He is phenomenally brave, a great fighter and the way he came back in the series after they took away his captaincy is proof that he never gives up."

Flintoff could be history's chosen man. In 1981, the Pope died, Prince Charles married, Liverpool were the European champions, the underclass rioted in Brixton and Toxteth against Margaret Thatcher, and Australia won the first Ashes Test. Replace Brixton and Toxteth with the London blasts of July 7, and nothing else has changed in 2005. Came Trent Bridge, and his brilliant and responsible first innings ton put England in a strong position from where it is almost improbable to lose unless the Aussies unearth their own V. V. S. Laxman. The Oval now beckons. So does the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in December — a cricketer (a footballer in white flannels would be more appropriate) last won it in 1981, and no prizes for guessing his name.