Michael Jeh August 23, 2009

Limited-overs a major challenge for Flintoff

At the end of the day, ODI’s and Twenty20s require the quintessential modern athlete to conquer it

The charm of sport lies in the warm afterglow of careers like Andrew Flintoff. Sport allows for charisma and romance to overshadow mere statistics. It recognises that sheer force of personality and the ability to galvanise a nation counts for more than runs and wickets, averages and strike rates, win/loss ratios. Flintoff has the humility to recognise sport’s forgiving nature and he has the personal brand to capitalise on that sense of being bigger even than he deserves to be.

In a revealing interview with Jonathan Agnew of BBC’s radio commentary team, Flintoff speaks determinedly, yet without arrogance, about the next stage of his cricket career – to become the best player in the world in the short form of the game. Despite his optimism and the warmth surrounding the man in these hours of celebration, I simply can’t see that happening. Not by a long shot.

To say that is not to decry his talents or question his skill. Flintoff is an easy champion to like and to wish him well is not a difficult thing, even for an Australian, even after an Ashes loss. My reasoning is based purely on cricketing ability and durability. I don’t think Flintoff has the game or the body to possibly come close to realising this dream.

To begin with, to become the best limited-overs player in the game, he must first raise his game to hitherto unscaled heights to begin matching the pace-setters like Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan and a host of others whose numbers stack up over a long period of time. Flintoff will probably not have the luxury of playing enough cricket, without interruption, to keep racking up performances to even be considered in that elite company. His fragile knees, ankles, back and shoulder (well, his whole body really) will make it virtually untenable to be considered for back-to-back ODI games, especially when you add the travelling and training requirements of a packed international calendar.

As a batsman, he will probably need to bat somewhere in the top five to have time to play enough innings of substance to be considered amongst the very best exponents of this craft. He will need hundreds, fast hundreds, slow hundreds, boundary-laden innings and others that require milking spinners and scampering runs when conditions dictate it. That’s why some of the great batsmen mentioned above have flourished for so long. They have a completeness to their batting which Flintoff doesn’t possess. Nor should he – he’s batted at 7 for most of his Test career and has played a totally different sort of role. Scoring hundreds against quality spin bowling in run chases on slowing tracks requires a range of strokes and a level of fitness that is probably beyond the big man. His power game is probably too one-dimensional at the moment. To be fair, he admitted as much in the radio interview, conceding that he needs to invent other strokes in his repertoire that go beyond the big booming drives down the ground. Modern ODI cricket can choke predictability all too predictably!

As a bowler, he needs to take wickets, lots of wickets, to rank amongst the genuine match-winners or game-turners in the shortened version of the game. That requires a body that doesn’t need the luxury of easing into his workload, short, sharp spells and the ability to cool down and warm up at short notice to return for game-changing moments. That’s not Flintoff’s body, especially not if he has already batted and has flung himself around in the field, as he would inevitably have to do once the slips have been dispensed with.

His economy rate is certainly no problem. 4.32 runs per over is more than satisfactory if he is striking at an average of close to two wickets per game. That’s the sort of territory that the Muralitharans, Warnes and Pollocks own – less than four runs per over and almost two wickets per game, playing every game in long tournaments. They also tend to have lots of big hauls that win matches singlehandedly, sometimes from impossible positions.

Flintoff’s natural length, shortish and tight in at the body will be frugal enough but without the luxury of slip fielders, he will simply lack the bowled and lbw dismissals that the best ODI bowlers need on predominantly flat tracks. Straightforward nicks to second slip will go flying down to third man for boundaries. He will need to change his length and develop a very good slower ball that is aimed at the stumps. I suspect it will be a bridge too far at his stage of evolution.

His safe hands and powerful arm will be adequate but the great fielders in the modern game need a lot more than that to regularly change games with consistent moments of brilliance. Again, his cumbersome frame will count against him. Mind you, what can you say about his ‘Ponting moment’ at the Oval?

At the end of the day, ODI’s and Twenty20s require the quintessential modern athlete to conquer it. To Flintoff’s eternal credit, he is anything but that. To me, that is his charm and his appeal. His fierce competitiveness doesn’t come at the expense of a broad smile. His lusty hitting won’t be sacrificed for the percentage ‘nurdle’. Flintoff is an old-fashioned buccaneer in a new age that has moved to a more scientific, clinical, innovative focus. The best player in the world he will never be but he will always embody what’s good about sport. Beer over boor. Heart over head. That’s the Freddie I’d like to remember!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane