The answer to England's prayers

ANDREW FLINTOFF'S performance in the NatWest triangular competition would have pleased the Englishmen no end. Finally, after so many false promises, they seem to have found the right all-rounder.

SRIKKANTH

Andrew Flintoff the bowler has really come on, in the last year.-Pics. SHAUN BOTTERILL & TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

ANDREW FLINTOFF'S performance in the NatWest triangular competition would have pleased the Englishmen no end. Finally, after so many false promises, they seem to have found the right all-rounder.

Flintoff is big and strong and can turn matches, both with the bat and the ball. He was easily the star of the show in the three-nation tournament, but let's not make the folly of comparing him with the great Ian Botham.

This has been a mistake often made by the English media and public, and even if a youngster was talented, he collapsed against the weight of expectations. Flintoff should be allowed to be his own man.

He has an aggressive and combative streak to him that can rub off on the entire side. It was Flintoff's performance that chiefly enabled England to level the one-day series in India last year, and that was a series when he appeared charged.

In fact, Flintoff was a revelation during that tour by England, especially in the Test series, where he showed great spirit, when the frontline England pacemen Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick were absent. I must say Flintoff emerged from that test with his reputation enhanced.

He has been outstanding with the ball over the last year for England, operating at a brisk pace and hitting the seam more often than not. Because of his height, he can extract natural bounce, and often bowls just short of a length, that makes it very difficult to drive him.

His wonderful spell against India in a key World Cup game in Durban is a case in point. Sachin Tendulkar had destroyed the England opening attack of Andrew Caddick and James Anderson and, it was Flintoff who put the brakes on India with some accurate and persistent bowling.

Flintoff also sends down a very effective yorker, that has crashed through many a defence. This suggests he can bowl at any stage of an innings in a limited overs contest.

His performances with the ball are even more creditable if we take into account the fact that he has recovered from a serious back injury. If he stays fit, he should serve the English attack for long.

With the bat, he is one of the hardest hitters of the ball in contemporary cricket, and players like him can be extremely dangerous; when in mood, he is such a clean and natural striker. In batting though, he doesn't seem to have done justice to his talent.

Flintoff is a bit too impulsive and there have been instances when he has let the side down with the willow. Given his natural ability, if he can temper his aggression, Flintoff can be a bigger influence in matches. He also needs to work on his footwork against the spinners.

Going back to that World Cup game in Kingsmead, even as the rest of the English batting fell apart, Flintoff played a defiant, stroke-filled innings. England lost by a mile that night, but Flintoff's knock was a thrilling effort of batsmanship.

In contemporary cricket, all-rounders are rare. Jacques Kallis, who too had his moments in the NatWest series for South Africa before that nightmarish final, is the leading all-rounder now, especially since his former skipper Shaun Pollock has not quite made the headlines with the bat.

Chris Cairns' decline in bowling caused by a succession of injuries has put Kallis right on top. However, in the days to come, Flintoff could challenge him, if he applies himself with the bat.

All-rounders have become so rare these days. I was lucky to play in an era, when we had four great all-rounders ruling the world scene. Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee. I would rate them in that order.

Kapil was sheer natural talent. With the ball he was so versatile. Kapil could bowl both the outswinger and the leg-cutter, inswinger and the off-cutter. He had an effective bouncer and a handy yorker and operated at a lively pace for most part of his career.

He could adapt himself to the conditions, and could respond to specific situations so well.

Kapil bowled in the hot dry conditions of the sub-continent where a lot of other bowlers would have just given up, and sent down long spells; there was so much more burden on him in the absence of adequate support.

With the bat, Kapil could alter the course of a game in no time. He made runs against the West Indies, when they had the four fast bowlers, never hesitating to hook and pull, and was a glorious striker of the ball against the spinners, often presenting a majestic picture.

If the side were to be in trouble, Kapil would invariably respond spiritedly to the challenge, in his own aggressive manner. To top it all, he was such a naturally blessed fielder.

Ian Botham, in several respects was similar to Kapil, however, I do not think he handled genuine pace as well as Kapil did. Botham seldom made runs against the West Indies, and this can be held against him.

The Englishman was a fine paceman, but that was a period when England had others of the tribe such as Bob Willis. In the case of Kapil, he was both the strike and the stock bowler.

Imran Khan was a supreme fast bowler, who could slice through line-ups on any kind of surface, given his abilty to move the ball at a blinding pace. However, it was only in the latter stages of his career that he developed into a full-fledged batsman.

In the second half his career, Imran would have made it to most sides as a specialist batsman alone. On the negative side, he was never quite as brisk on the field as Kapil or Botham.

Richard Hadlee was a complete paceman, the sultan of seam and swing. However, he was not in the same league as the other three with the bat. Very useful, but never quite as influential.

An all-rounder is an absolute must for a side to be complete. He does so much to the balance of the outfit. England is lucky that it has found a promising one in Flintoff. Meanwhile, the search continues for India.