Ashes July 24, 2009

Wanted: knees and ankles for Freddie

The impact of one player grasping a match by the neck and throttling it until it stopped squeaking, Flintoff’s efforts on an unresponsive wicket on rebellious knees were staggering

Hello again Confectionery Stallers. I wrote last week about how the Cardiff Test made me feel like a teenager again, with its Australian dominance and voracious run-scoring painfully echoing 1989 and 1993. At Lord’s my regression continued – I felt like the 10-year-old that I was in 1985, watching England casually demolish substandard Australian bowling, then blast through a tentative top order. Is Freddie Flintoff really the new Richard Ellison?

To complete that distinctly mid-80s Ashes feeling, five Australians were good enough to get themselves out pulling or hooking in the first innings – as if an entire team of cloned Andrew Hilditches had taken the field.

At the age of 34, having never seen England even come close to defeating Australia at Lord’s (the last time England even took a first-innings lead over the Aussies at Lord’s was 1975), I had long since assumed this would simply be something that I would never see in my lifetime, alongside such distant but hopeless scenarios as England fielding a four-prong wrist-spin attack, the monarch leading Britain into battle again, Neil Armstrong landing on the moon for a second time, a dog being elected prime minister of a G8 nation, the Vatican becoming a Test-playing nation (although St Peter’s Square remains one of the flattest batting tracks in the Catholic world), the development of the self-cooking chicken, the extinction of the wasp, and lasting peace in the Middle East.

I am still finding it hard, therefore, to adjust psychologically to the fact that Hedley Verity is no longer the last man to have bowled England to victory in an Ashes Test at Cricket HQ.

Aside from being a jubilant occasion for English cricket, the first for a considerable time, this was a fascinating match. There was much good cricket, mostly by England, alongside a considerable amount of quite bad cricket, mostly by Australia. Everyone wants to make history at Lord’s, but few have done so quite as spectacularly as Mitchell Johnson, who recorded the most expensive 20-over analysis in Ashes history, as he cleverly removed the docile pitch from the delicate equation of cricket by aiming to pitch the ball wide of or beyond it.

Overall, it has been an evenly matched series so far, in that both sides have played one good match and one mostly rubbish one. If they both play well at the same time, or indeed if they both play rubbishly at the same time, we are in for a truly unforgettable game at some point in the series.

England got away with their Cardiff blooper, saved by a combination of Collingwood, a stubborn tail, fourth-day rain and a comatose pitch. Australia were not so fortunate at Lord’s. Monty Panesar’s sudden and unexpected conversion to being a genuine allrounder – a latter day St Paul, with similar publishing opportunities in the pipeline − now looks even more precious than it did at the time.

The unquestionable highlight of the second Test was the iconic, quintessentially Flintoffian second-innings bowling display by, appropriately enough, Andrew Flintoff. This was classic Flintoff – majestic, charismatic, unstoppable, game-changing, but statistically unremarkable. Relatively, at least. As momentous spells of bowling go, the figures of 5 for 92 barely scratch at the surface of what Flintoff did – the same analysis as Graham Dilley etched onto the Edgbaston honours board against Pakistan in 1987, and slightly inferior to Chris Silverwood’s immortal 5 for 91 as England subsided to an innings defeat at Cape Town in 1999-2000, or Paul Wiseman’s epoch-defining 5 for 90 for New Zealand in Bulawayo in September 2000.

5 for 92 – not quite as numerically memorable as Laker’s 10 for 53, Ambrose’s famous spell of 7 for 1, or Botham’s 28-ball stint of 5 for 1 at Edgbaston in 1981. Or even as his own, strikingly similar, 5 for 78 at The Oval in 2005.

The game was labelled by some as ‘Flintoff’s Match’ – rightly so, as his performance is what the game will be remembered for above all else – yet, as an all-round display, it was not quite as impressive as Abey Kuruvilla’s effort for India against Sri Lanka in Mohali in 1997-98. Kuruvilla scored 35 not out, compared to Flintoff’s 34 for once out, and took 6 for 117, as opposed to the English titan’s comparatively profligate 6 for 119. Few in the cricket world, however, talk excitedly of ‘Kuruvilla’s Match’. None, in fact. Not even members of the Kerala quite-quickman’s immediate family.

Yet, for drama, hostility, and the impact of one player grasping a match by the neck and throttling it until it stopped squeaking, Flintoff’s efforts on an unresponsive wicket on rebellious knees were staggering. If England take the series, Flintoff will retire from Tests as the first bowler in history to be able to claim that 50% of his career first-class five-wicket hauls had played decisive roles in securing Ashes.

He is a cricketer who transcends statistics. He will not be remembered for his apparently unremarkable numbers. Which is fortunate, because his statistics themselves are hugely misleading, to the extent that any half-decent judge would throw them out of court as evidence in the case of R. versus Flintoff’s Claims To Cricketing Greatness.

Ignore his career bowling average of 32.17 – identical to Ewen Chatfield’s to two decimal points, almost a run-per-wicket worse than Alan Mullally’s. Flintoff was barely even a bowler at all when he began in Test cricket. He took seven wickets in his first 10 Tests, and just 43 in his first 26 games, spread over five years to the end of the 2003 series with South Africa. His first Test wicket was just his eighth in first-class cricket, hardly the sign of a natural wicket-taker destined to take the world by storm. More the sign of a poor man’s Derek Pringle.

Essentially, Flintoff had to learn to bowl in the international arena (even today, over the course of his career, he has taken only 124 wickets in 104 first-class matches outside Test cricket, which is a fair few more than I have taken, admittedly, but fewer than the average county trundler). Since 2003, however, his long and usual bowling apprenticeship complete, he has taken 182 Test wickets in 51 games, at an average fractionally under 28 and with a strike-rate of 56 – figures in the same bracket as the likes of Jon Snow, Angus Fraser, Jeff Thomson, Merv Hughes, Darren Gough, Graham McKenzie and Wes Hall.

If modern batsman can be mentally debited around five runs from their career averages due to a combination of dead pitches, knackered bowlers, space-age bats and advertising-age boundaries, then bowlers should also be credited a little. If Flintoff had been bowling in the 1980s, and had entered the Test game somewhere near fully formed, I would suggest that his career average would almost certainly have been in the mid-to-low 20s.

Flintoff’s self-improvement, particularly as a bowler, aided by patience on the part of selectors and captains, is one of the most remarkable stories of modern English cricket. Seeing the shuffling 20-year-old who made an uncertain, ineffectual debut in 1998 against South Africa – two matches which brought him 17, 0 and 0 with the bat, and one wicket for 112 – who would have predicted that he would score even 370 Test runs or take 25 wickets, let alone 3700 and 225?

By all of which, what I really mean is: I’m going to miss him, and Test cricket is going to miss him. I don’t care if he sometimes bowls a bit too short, habitually gets out poking at something nondescript outside off stump, has occasionally drunk from a flagon containing something other than an isotonic sports drink, and hasn’t been involved in many England wins in recent years. (The last of these is hardly Flintoff’s fault. England haven’t been involved in many England wins of relevance in recent years.)

And if anyone is willing to donate a healthy pair of knees and ankles, I personally will contribute to a surgery fund to keep him going as a Test cricketer for the next five years. Whether he likes it or not.

To celebrate the once-in-anyone-under-the-age-of-75’s-lifetime occasion of an England Ashes win at Lord’s, The Confectionery Stall is delighted to announce the launch of the first ever Official Confectionery Stall Multiple Choice 2009 Ashes Mid-Series Quiz. The questions will be issued in the form of two exam papers, the first on Saturday, and the second on Monday.

If you score over 99.94% (the mark achieve by a computer simulation of the late Sir Donald Bradman when it sat this test), you will win the chance to captain your country in a Test match (subject to permission from the selectors and players of the relevant team).

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer