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September 3, 2004
It was fitting that Andrew Flintoff finally ended India's tailend resistance at a sun-bathed Oval today. It was Flintoff's flaying bat - a 99 without a flaky shot in sight - which stopped the rot of a mid-innings wobble and demoralised the Indians.
In the space of a year Flintoff has finally grown into the mantle of match-turner at international level. England without Flintoff - as they were in the first few matches of the midsummer NatWest Series - were anaemic, and they missed him every bit as much as India are now missing Sachin Tendulkar. Since his recall, when half-fit and unable to bowl, Flintoff's one-day scores have been 21 not out, 106, 123, 34 not out and 99.
And in his last 17 one-dayers, since the middle of last July's NatWest Series, Flintoff averages 87.89 with the bat, and has taken 20 wickets at 19.15. There is a sureness, a certainty with the bat that was lacking before. He stands tall at the crease, and now gets his eye in before starting to blast away like a lumberjack on overtime. Flintoff's batting is intimidating, entertaining and effective - even Ian Botham at his glittering best was rarely quite as imposing. There was a flat six today that cannoned into the Bedser Stand next to the pavilion, after skimming along about ten feet above the turf all the way. It was almost as awesome as last year's drilled drive off Makhaya Ntini that clanged into the dressing-room window even higher up the same high-sided stand.
It's been a longish road - remember that poky pair against South Africa at Headingley in 1998, and a Test batting record that, after the first innings of his 13th Test, read 259 runs at 12.95. Injuries have been a problem, and may continue to be - but central contracts might have been invented with Freddie's dodgy back in mind, and if he can keep body together with an undoubted soul the scheme will have paid for itself.
Flintoff has helped remove a sizeable monkey from Team England's back: the one about the team that hadn't won a match batting first since they caught Pakistan under the lights on a steamy night at Cape Town more than 18 months ago.
There is, of course, a bit of a hole on the Flintoff cv. He hasn't yet played a Test match against Australia. But it's a racing certainty that Messrs McGrath and Warne have been keeping an eye on him this summer.
In many ways it's no longer a case of the New Botham. Soon people may start calling Botham the Old Flintoff.
Steven Lynch is the editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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