July 23, 2009

Samir Chopra

Freddie Flintoff and the adjective 'great'

Samir Chopra

It has been a long time since I've felt genuine affection for an English cricketer. More precisely, since David Gower and Ian Botham packed up their kitbags and left. Freddie Flintoff stepped into the breach, and despite my initial viewing of him as a drunken soccer oaf, he managed to impress me with his ability to ratchet up the atmosphere in a Test match with his justifiably famous spells, to be combative with batsmen while not descending into puerile abusiveness, to hit the ball hard and long, and with all those other ineffable qualities that make disbelievers into Freddie fans. Flintoff evokes feelings in me that remind me of my childhood following of cricket.

But in all of this, I have never considered Flintoff a 'great' cricketer just like I never considered many other darlings of mine (like Kim Hughes for instance) to be greats. And it dismays me to see that term thrown about so freely in this Ashes summer as the English media gear up, almost hopefully, for a final orgy of Freddie-anointing. Good yes, talented yes, mercurial yes, brilliant to watch yes. But great? No.

If one is to believe the emanations of the English press after the Lord's Test, it is possible for a bowler to be called great despite possessing the mediocre statistics that Flintoff does (he has, I might like to remind readers, not even taken three wickets per test over his career), for a player to be called a great Ashes performer despite leading his side to a 0-5 whitewash at the hands of the Great Enemy (and visibly losing all control of his team as the series wore on), for an allrounder to be called great despite only being able to swing an occasional match in favour of England with his bowling and batting.

While statistics do lie on occasion, there is something to be said for reserving the adjective 'great' for those cricketers able to maintain and sustain a high level of cricketing performance over an extended period of time. To call Flintoff a 'great' Test cricketer is to admit him to an exclusive club whose membership has taken far more work, dedication, skill and longevity on the part of its members than Freddie has been able to show.

Flintoff's famous injuries have managed to obscure the fact that he has not taken smart decisions with his body, in choosing to play certain games and not others. The Flintoff legend makes these injuries sound like the fates conspiring against him, a biological conspiracy of sorts. But reality is a little more prosaic than that.

Cricket fans are familiar with the archetypal figure of the talented-but-not-great cricketer: men who showed dazzling displays of brilliance but were unable to sustain it over their careers. These men provoke passionate defenses on the part of their fans that typically take the form of "You say X is a great cricketer but I'd rather watch a short innings by Y any day" and so on. These men encourage a disdain for statistics, for the stories the scoreboards and record books tell.

Flintoff will always prompt such defenses and it is tribute to him that he does so. I have defended him in similar fashion on my blog in the past. But I've done so knowing the charges against him have contained a kernel of truth.

A great cricketer leaves his mark on the game over an extended period of time, by performing well at home and away, by setting standards (yes, statistical ones too) for others to try and emulate, by being a pioneer in some fashion. Flintoff has come close to doing some of these things but he is not there yet.

Flintoff will always be remembered as a wonderfully exciting cricketer that managed to make a couple of Ashes series played in England the stage for some great cricketing theatre. But the rest of his career, his away performances, his inconsistency, his early retirement from test cricket, will ensure that he will not be considered a great cricketer - at least in the eyes of many folks who don't write for English newspapers.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

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Posted by frye on (August 25, 2009, 12:11 GMT)

Being an england fan,i am sick of the media hype over freddie. I do like edward smythe's comments about flintoff being chavs yob in chief, and as for his celebrations at Lords.... i never felt so embarrassed. Flintoff is no where near as good as the others listed and the media need to stop this sycophantic tripe they keep spouting.Its as someone said earlier, Katich did a quality run out yet everyone bangs on about "freddie".

Also even though england or rather South afraica 2nd XI won the ashes, i dont really care that they have, its clear that selling out to Sky has resulted in the public not caring as much as they did in 2005. Just doesnt feel the same and its a combination of this + the fact that england had so many incorrect decisions go their way thats tarnished it for me.

All I can see is that South Africa, just like last year will be dishing out a cricketing lesson.

Posted by Jenny on (August 24, 2009, 10:07 GMT)

I agree Freddie is far from great ... his stats don;t stand up -- but he has bewitched the british crowds by going down on his knees, spreading his arms and silently saying 'worship me, I am a god'. If an Aussie did that he'd be accused of lacking humility and being a poor sportsman. His one highspot at the oval -- a run out -- wasn't as good as the two by Katich -- yet Freddie gets the accolades. Go figure.

Posted by Patch on (August 9, 2009, 19:46 GMT)

In reply to 'Big John' - Kapil Dev was left out of my 'great' list due to his relatively high bowling average (near 30). It was a marginal decision, I think he now should (in hindsight) be added to that list, (sorry to all offended Kapil fans). Shaun Pollock was a victim of my issues with meeting the character limit, I'd place him with the 'good' section.

Another person I didn't include who should have been in the 'good' section, arguably a borderline great was Trevor Goddard - what put me off him was his solitary test century. Alan Davidson like Goddard has a higher batting avg and a lower bowling one, with a top score of 80.

For me a great all rounders minimum requirements would be a batting average of 33+, 5 test centuries, a bowling average of 31 or below and 200 wickets.

Interesting re Freddie, if he plays a blinder at the Oval he can achieve a higher batting than bowling average ..... maybe 100 runs and 6 (cheap) wickets .. maybe the cricinfo stats guy could check that!

Posted by Mr Wicket on (August 6, 2009, 11:27 GMT)

My criterion for an all-rounder is someone whose batting average is higher than his bowling average and Flintoff doesn't qualify. He's too inconsistent, especially with the bat, to be called great. But he does put in some matchwinning performances with both ball and bat - an intermittent great, perhaps. Never boring, though.

Posted by David Elias on (August 5, 2009, 6:20 GMT)

So it is true what they say... there are journalists out there that have a brain!! well done Samir Chopra

Posted by greyblazer on (August 2, 2009, 3:37 GMT)

"Freddie may not be a great but would anyone call KP great"

Why not if KP scores about 9000 odd runs at an average of 50 he can called a great.

Mind you 12 of his 16 hundreds have come when England were in trouble and let us see if Freddie who is loved by many match it.

Posted by Gavin Heard on (July 31, 2009, 21:17 GMT)

only taken 5 wickets 3 times, never taken 10 for and and average of around 33 with both bat and ball - Clearly Freddy is NOT a great - just a good all rounder.

Posted by Hazpa on (July 30, 2009, 6:11 GMT)

Why do so many players and ex-players so revere Freddie if the 'great and good' of this blog find it so ridiculous? Greatness is standing above the others. It's not a statistic. Freddie - when injury free and firing - stands above the others, and inspires teamates and fans, with an aura of Greatness. That's not to say that he has had a Great career. Just that he has Greatness within him.

Posted by faiz_bihari on (July 29, 2009, 16:55 GMT)

At present only Sachin is a great player.And others like Ponting,Kallis and Murli are in the race of acheiving greatness

Posted by Walter on (July 29, 2009, 10:32 GMT)

If i had to chose between Flintoff or Kallis id take Kallis any day of the week. Pollock would be another id pick above flintoff. Freddie has magic spells and can do things others can only dream about..but thats only when he's at home. Away he is ok. Kallis and Pollock have delivered all over the world time and again..and Freddie? only once every 4 years does he shine..and thats not good enough. Overrated and overpaid..

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Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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