Unpredictable Fred turns formidable

A match-winner single handed, Andrew Flintoff is not just a great attacking batsman, a fine fielder and a useful bowler. He finds the most dramatic moment to produce his best. And looks like a Greek god or Richard the Lionheart on yet another crusade, writes TED CORBETT.

THINKING themselves unbeatable, the Australians claim they fear no batsman, bowler nor fielder. When they meet England in five Tests beginning in July they will respect Michael Vaughan, the England captain, since he scored three centuries when they last came up against him in 2002-03. They will be wary of Kevin Pietersen, England's hard-hitting middle order batsman, especially if Shane Warne, the Hampshire captain, gives the new boy a good report. But only one man is likely to force them to make special plans, to reassess their tactics and to shiver a little.

Andrew `Freddie' Flintoff is different. Not just a great attacking batsman with an unnatural streak of patience and a dose of field craft in his make-up. Not just a fine defensive bowler who wears down the finest batsman and sometimes produces an extra mile of pace to break the back of the most obdurate defender. Not just the finest fielder in the England squad either on the boundary or at slip.

Flintoff is a match-winner, single-handed, either batting at No. 6 or bowling, with a fairly new ball or the old. He looks like a Greek god — or maybe Richard the Lionheart off on yet another crusade — and he now has the facts to back up the legends.

He also has the indefinable something that marked out Ian Botham. "Who writes your scripts?" Graham Gooch demanded of Botham when he marked his return to the Test side after a long suspension with a first ball wicket.

You can ask Flintoff the same question. He also has the magic touch, the wish to be famous, the urge that spurs him to greater effort when the going is too tough for your average cricketer.

Flintoff performs in Technicolor, finds the most dramatic moment to produce his best, captures the limelight when his side looks beaten, never shirks the call of centre stage.

Who else could have crowned a century at Lord's with a six that soared towards a box in one of the stands, right to the seat in which his father was sitting. Dad reached for the `catch' and dropped it — to the huge amusement of his son?

In other words he has star quality which is why spectators rise to their feet when England's fourth wicket falls. Some have read that as an insulting farewell to one of the top batsmen but essentially it is welcome to the gladiator.

You can bet on one fact. When he goes in to bat against Warne, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie in the opening match of the series he will receive a welcome that will echo around the country.

For, strangely for a man of 28 with 45 Tests behind him, Flintoff has never played Tests against the old enemy. Only John Reid, the New Zealand batsman who never faced up to Australia, has ever played more Tests without coming up against those formidable foes and he played 58 Tests.

Andrew Flintoff with his wife Rachael Wools and daughter Holly.-AP

Long before the cheers, the hoots, whistles and hurrahs have died down Australia will give Flintoff their own welcome. If their sledging is at its toughest it will be — in their eyes anyway — a sign of respect, their way of saying that Flintoff is worth disturbing and annoying.

It is unlikely to work for this big, amiable man has a hard casing around his cricket soul. He is a jolly, easily amused, laughing cavalier of an all-rounder, a contrast with the serious Botham, a cricketer with whom he is often compared.

Botham is also an admirer of Flintoff's and as he comments on each innings he will be genuinely hoping his successor succeeds.

Those comparisons are not worth a moment's thought although as Flintoff grows older — and now surely he is at an age when his powers ought to be at their greatest — he finds it easier to concentrate, to play a long innings, to push aside the temptation of the high full toss, the rising long hop and the wide half volley until he is ready to give full weight to his strokes.

It has not always been so; at one time `Freddie' could resist anything except temptation. He emerged from the country town of Preston, 30 miles north of Manchester, through the schools system where he was big enough at 6ft 4in and a lot more than 15st to bully his way to big scores and heaps of wickets.

When he arrived at Old Trafford his reputation as a big hitter had arrived first. Bob Simpson, the former Australian captain and coach, was in charge and, he admitted later in this magazine, he was astounded at the strength of this 17-year-old.

Flintoff also has an admission from those early days. He was shy around the great names with whom he made daily contact. Big and shy seems a strange combination but that is how Flintoff was, unsure how to conduct himself, concerned not to commit a social error, worried unless he said the wrong thing at the wrong moment.

Flintoff is ready to face the greatest trial of his carrer during the Ashes series.-PAUL GILHAM/GETTY IMAGES

It was not just Bob Simpson who was impressed with the talented new boy. David Lloyd, then the England coach, used to mention `Freddie' every time the lack of young players cropped up and the umpires, who miss few of the great players when they are young, began to spread the word too.

So Flintoff grew and grew; in every sense. He mixed with drinkers and joined in every round. He ate too much. He did not take enough exercise. At one stage, to the horror of the England and Lancashire managements, he weighed in at 17st 12lb, the same as the world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis.

When that single fact emerged Flintoff was mocked. The cartoonists had a field day, the sports columnists put on their sternest prose and announced that 17st 12lb might have been all right for W. G. Grace and W. W. Armstrong in their time but it was too much for a promising athlete in his early 20s and the news spread round the world.

It was just as well that Flintoff had among his advisers Neil Fairbrother, former Lancashire captain and for all he is no more than three quarters of Flintoff's height, a man who speaks his mind with complete freedom whether his views are good, bad or downright rude.

Fairbrother told Flintoff to grow up, to cut out the burgers and the beer and to concentrate on making the best of his skills. No gain without pain was the message. Flintoff listened.

It was the start of the process that turned Fred the Unpredictable into the formidable Flintoff. Since those days, nearly four years ago, he has also had to have a hernia and a heel operation while becoming a father and getting married, a ceremony that involved Flintoff flying his pals to Budapest for a bachelor night.

But now Flintoff can point to his figures. In 72 Test innings he has scored 2239 runs at 32.45 — with four hundreds and 14 fifties — and dug out 110 batsmen at 34.80, although his bowling is seen in a better light if you consider his part in the team effort in which Steve Harmison shoots batsmen out, Matthew Hoggard coaxes them out and Simon Jones attacks as if he had a bayonet at the end of a rifle.

Flintoff's bowling provides the defensive strength — an odd contrast to his belligerent batting — just as it does in the 50-over matches.

In 80 one-day international matches Flintoff has 2111 runs with an average of 35.18 with three centuries and 13 fifties and 82 victims at 23.98.

His marriage, Fairbrother's brusque management techniques, and a more mature outlook on life have all made their contribution to Flintoff's place at the top of the world in 2005. He came home early from South Africa so that he would have time to recover from the operation on his heel and this early summer he has played for Lancashire as a batsman. He has slowly returned to the bowling crease and says, as I write, that he is 80 per cent from his peak.

McGrath had the same operation and, as we all know, is just as effective as ever. They might even have a giggle over their experiences under the knife between overs although somehow I doubt it.

This series provides Flintoff with his greatest trial but by the end of it we will know, finally, whether Andrew Wannabe has at last turned into Can-do Flintoff; and perhaps whether he is a greater all-rounder than Ian Botham.