From an Australian viewpoint, they don’t come much better than Freddie Flintoff. If the Brits were feeling particularly generous, they might even consider making him an honorary Aussie! We’d love to claim him.
Seriously though, it’s great to see the old Flintoff back in full swing. It’s not just his talent that stands out a mile - to me, Flintoff stands for everything that is good about cricket. He’s almost an Errol Flynn-type character.
Buccaneering - now there’s a word that one doesn’t often get to use in modern language but it was made for a chap like Flintoff. He’s not perfect, he gets into the odd scrape and he occasionally plays a daft shot at a crucial time. Even then, he disarms people with his slightly sheepish grin and his refusal to take life too seriously. There’s a hint of Ian Botham in him in that sense. Cricket seems to be a bit of a lark to him and his persona is infectious. Put simply, it’s hard to dislike Flintoff.
I’m not sure about other parts of the cricketing world but I get the distinct impression that Australians have a soft spot for players like him. They must, first and foremost, earn respect for their on-field skills and Freddie seems to have done that. His lion-hearted performances in the 2005 Ashes as well as some brave, lone bowling spells in the 2006-07 series makes him stand out. To a certain extent, Kevin Pietersen too is a popular figure here for similar reasons.
What makes Flintoff really stand out though is his wonderful ability to play the game “hard but fair”. It’s a term that is terribly overused and often in entirely the wrong context. Hard but fair is not about mouthing crude obscenities on the field, having a beer in the dressing room and then turning on the abuse again next morning. That’s just a winner’s definition of the term. Players like Flintoff and Brett Lee seem to have found that wonderful balance of giving nothing short of 100% with ball or bat in hand but stop short of crossing that fine line that separates competitiveness from boorishness.
Both Flintoff and Lee may have been a bit less so in their youth but that’s just part of growing up. Lance Klusener too finished his career giving the impression of someone who put cricket in perspective. In the modern game, Mike Hussey, Dwayne Bravo, Shane Bond, Kumar Sangakkara and Virender Sehwag appear to have similar sunny dispositions. It could be an elaborate disguise but one hopes not. They all seem genuinely likeable characters.
Back to Flintoff though - he just seems to exude a boyish charm that makes it difficult to dislike him, even in the middle of a hostile spell. Watching him against South Africa recently, he beat batsmen with snorting deliveries and realised the moral victory was his without having to rub it in. When he took a wicket, the celebrations seemed more inward-focused than a triumphalist humiliation of the batsman. Job done - no need to send them off with a cowardly gesture. When he smashed a boundary, he sported a cheeky grin rather than an aggressive fist in the air. It was almost like a schoolboy who’s found a dollar coin in the gutter. He’ll claim it but is almost sheepish about his good fortune.
Lee shares a lot in common with Flintoff - by all accounts, they are both popular figures, even amongst opponents. Every country has these players - genuine ‘nice guys’ who seem to still treat international cricket with that touch of irreverence. Deadly serious competitors but they just know where to draw that line. It’s too easy to focus on those who cross that line and bring the game into disrepute but with a big man like Flintoff, one can only hope that he becomes a hero to more than just British kids. In fact, sometimes, Flintoff acts like a kid himself, kicking up his heels and celebrating simple pleasures, even at his own expense.
At a time when some other notable players are battling demons, Flintoff just seems to be revelling in being back on the park again. A fit and happy Freddy is not just good for England but he’s great for cricket full stop. So long as he retires before the next Ashes.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane