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Freddie Flintoff will always be a cricketing hero. As close as he came to conjuring up the NatWest Blast title for Lancashire, he was just a hero no longer in his time
August 23, 2014
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Freddie runs around to his right, he picks up the ball, he aims his throw, and then he holds the ball. There is no magic run-out chance. There is no need for the hero pose. This isn't his time. This isn't that Freddie.
Freddie is still big. You can't confuse him with any of the other Lancashire players in the warm up. That tree trunk body, that off kilter stance, the massive shoulders, the blonde hair, the rocking shoulder movement, the John Wayne run up and the heavy ball. Although, the heavy ball seems lighter in the warm up.
Freddie is warming up in full reds. He's shadow boxing with Adam Hollioake, hugging Charlie Dagnall, and giggling with Luke Wright. If he's nervous, there is no sign of it. In the batting warm ups he's playing straight drives, but misses the net by several metres on one. In the fielding practice he puts in the least effort he can without annoying the fielding coach.
Freddie heads off for the final preparation of the game. He stops to chat to more friends. Everyone gets a chat and a soul brother handshake. As he hits the steps he signs autographs and poses for photos.
Freddie is only playing because Kabir Ali, who was preferred in the semi-final, is injured. Kabir Ali was born injured. Kabir Ali will be injured after he's dead. But this injury has given one last Hero Chance for Freddie. It is, for the occasion, a perfect injury.
Freddie retired from Tests exactly five years ago, August 23, 2009. He still gets a bigger cheer than James Anderson when his name is read out. His cheer is even bigger than the boos Kevin PIetersen got. He might be old, he might be a semi-successful reality TV show host, he might be a media whore, but he's still Freddie. It's only a few kids under 10 who seem confused why this bloke who's played two matches this season seems so popular.
Freddie starts off in the slips. Where he did some of his best work. He walks up to the crease to do his run up in between balls. He does it gingerly with a tip-toeing pigeon step. As the ball is delivered, he jumps into a sumo wrestler pose waiting for the edge. Looking for that one-handed glory. So he can look nonchalant about it seconds later.
Freddie only looks nervous when he's about to bowl. Paul Horton talks to him about the field, but Freddie looks distracted. Varun Chopra tries to move some of the crowd, and Freddie just wants to bowl. Just get that first one under the belt.
Freddie finally bowls. It is a slow ball on a decent length. Ian Bell hits it straight up in the air. Karl Brown races back at mid-on. Freddie watches on. Brown has a lot of time to cover a lot of ground. He gets there. Freddie's arms go straight into his saviour pose. But there is no certainty to them; it's just muscle memory. Instead of looking nonchalant, he looks surprised at how he's ended with a wicket from such a slow, length ball.
Freddie completes the over well, allowing only three runs from what is one of the slowest and most innocuous overs of the day. Freddie waves at the crowd, he plays with his cap over his face for someone. He's enjoying himself. He's no longer nervous.
Freddie chats to Jimmy about strategy before the next over. But his first ball is a horror. It's the ball Freddie was worried about bowling before his first over. A slow waist-high full toss no-ball that floats beautifully on to the bat and way over the rope. The next five balls only give up three runs. There are giggles and smiles between balls. It's still slow, and his trademark heavy balls are very light but it's good, canny, old-guy bowling.
Freddie then ends with a half-volley on off stump. Porterfield puts it into the crowd.
Freddie then travels from short fine to short fine. The old man position. He's not consulted on team strategy. He's just going from end to end. Picking up the odd ball off the thigh pad. Just a player that's not needed often.
Freddie does dive. He dives suddenly and athletically to his left. The ball has been flicked fast from outside off stump from Rikki Clarke, who did well to find Freddie's short-fine hiding spot. It hits his hand. It would have been tough in his prime. The ball dribbles off behind him. He's furious with himself. The next ball Clarke is bowled. Freddie shows more happiness at that than his wicket of Bell.
Freddie warms up. But Horton doesn't respond. His bowling has looked hittable and medium. It doesn't seem like a plan, they just don't think he's the best option. The most movement he has after the drop is moving from short fine to long leg for one delivery.
Freddie will bat at nine. Freddie has batted six for England in Tests. He has more sixes than any other English batsman in Tests. He has made a run-a-ball 142 against South Africa. He has made two better than run-a-ball hundreds in ODI cricket. When Brad Hogg made his comeback, he gave up any pretension of being an allrounder. But he was really old, not just old in the ankles and knees like Freddie.
Freddie has a cameraman in front of him for most of the innings. This time it's not for a one liner, TV stunt or boxing match, he is actually expected to be able to do this. This is why he is famous. The problem with being a hero is that people expect you to be the hero. His bat rests on his shoulder, it's not his famous Woodworm. He looks nervous. He's shaking. But it is cold. Very cold. He shakes as Brown gets Lancashire close.
Freddie picks up his helmet before the bails hit the ground. It's all business. There is no show. No put on. He holds the bat by the base, like a club. His helmet has tape over the logo. He just wants to get out there and face. He pokes at the pitch, briefly, barely takes guard, and then awkwardly nudges for one. There are other singles as well. He now runs like an old man.
Freddie is three off three when Oliver Hannon-Dalby bowls a slow ball in the slot. Freddie times it. It jumps off his bat. It sails over the bowler. Over the long-off. Over the rope. Over the photographers. Over the fence. Over three rows. Row 4. Six runs. Next ball it's a full toss, it's slapped low and hard to deep midwicket. Through the hand of a fielder, and into the shoulder of a security guard. He chats to Hannon-Dalby after the six. He's looking fired up now.
Freddie now doesn't look like a guy who has spent the last two weeks in the back of a fish and chip van. Freddie looks like a hero.
Freddie steals a bye from the non-striker's end. He doesn't run quickly, he doesn't dive well, but he manages to make it over the line. Chris Woakes laughs at him as he struggles to get up from the dirt. They need 13 runs off five balls. Freddie mishits twice. Both get him twos. Nine runs off three balls.
Freddie times the ball. But it's along the carpet and straight at a fielder. There is no six, four or even two. He's now off strike. But he stops Woakes from bowling and chats to the umpire. He then relays the information to Stephen Parry, who's on strike. It could have been important, but it looks like he is trying to put as much pressure on Woakes as he can without actually facing. Woakes bowls two good balls, Birmingham win.
Freddie completes the single and shakes the hands of the umpire. For a man of his talent, it's a modest bits-and-pieces game. And yet still, Freddie has almost won the game. He almost sucked the victory into his orbit. Just by being there.
Freddie is a marvel, even when he isn't. It was Finals Day, he wasn't even supposed to play, and even on the losing side at the non-striker's end, he is the story.
Freddie is besieged by Birmingham players straight after their initial celebration. They're not shaking the hand of an opposition player. They are shaking the hand of their hero. Freddie has almost won a game after five years out, against a bunch of kids who grew up watching him on TV. Every handshake confirms this more.
Freddie doesn't stand with his arms out as team-mates drape themselves across him, he stands to the side and claps the winning side off the ground.
Freddie is still the hero. But it's not his time.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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