England news May 31, 2014

Not a time for Flintoff cynicism

Andrew Flintoff deserves a chance to try and find out if he can still hack it, for his body was broken in the service of England

It would be easy to be cynical about the return of Andrew Flintoff. It would be easy to dismiss his comeback as a publicity stunt, or the symptom of a mid-life crisis. It would be easy, and probably quite legitimate, to point out that his return will displace a younger man in the Lancashire team who might have been working towards this opportunity his whole career.

But none of that stuff matters. Not really. Not in the grand scheme of things.

The purpose of the relaunched NatWest T20 Blast is to fill grounds and inspire new supporters and players. And the fact is that Flintoff, even aged 36 and nearly five years into retirement, remains one of very few Englishmen to have broken out of the confines of cricket to become something approaching a household name.

His return will guarantee wider media coverage for the tournament and should help bring more people to games. In the context of an event fighting for limelight amid a football World Cup and myriad other rivals, Flintoff's return is cause for celebration.

There is a lesson here, though. Flintoff's fame was cemented by his Man-of-the-Series winning performance in the Ashes of 2005; a series in which he bowled with pace and skill, batted with bravado and skill and showed the sort of grace in victory that portrayed the game in a flattering light.

But crucially, that Ashes series was the last shown on free to air TV in the UK. So while other players since have had periods of outstanding form, none have quite gone on to make the crossover from cricket to mainstream media personality. Flintoff's all-round excellence was one reason for his popularity and fame, but that fact that he had a larger stage and a bigger audience was also relevant.

The fear has to be that, for all the benefits of the finance pumped into the game by selling TV rights to one subscription broadcaster, it is almost impossible to replace the reach of a free to air coverage.

It is almost impossible the recapture the public imagination in the same way as it was in the summer of 2005. And for that reason, the English game is still looking for new heroes to replace those that have retired.

The interest generated by Flintoff's return only underlines the difficulty the modern game has in appealing to a new audience and remaining relevant. It also underlines the need the game has to exploit the stars it has; the failure of the ECB to fully utilise Kevin Pietersen this way remains a regret.

Who knows if Flintoff's body can handle the demands of a return? Who knows if his batting - so modest towards the end of his career - can prove destructive or his bowling rediscover the pace it once had? But, had his body not failed him, Flintoff would have been a T20 specialist long ago.

He deserves a chance to try and find out if he can still hack it, for his body was broken in the service of England. It was broken when bowling 40 overs in an innings against South Africa at Headingley in 2008; when bowling 68.3 overs in a match against Sri Lanka at Lord's in 2006. It was broken in finding one more spell, again and again, on the flattest of pitches and with the softest of balls, in helping England back to respectability after years of mediocrity.

He deserves a bit more credit than he is sometimes given. And, if there were times when he had to let off steam… well, all that bowling must have been thirsty work.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ishrat on June 2, 2014, 12:47 GMT

    I want Fred back even for a season

  • Vaseem on June 2, 2014, 10:30 GMT

    I have no doubt that a 36 year old freddie will be able to out-bowl most of the medium paced trundlers that the county circuit is replete with. Remember he was noted not just for his pace, but his accuracy.

    I hope he does well, because I agree with the sentiment of the article - the gave his all for his country and showed that you can be a top sportsman and still look like you're having fun!

  • Dummy4 on June 2, 2014, 9:14 GMT

    Flintoff never had the ability of Botham, but he's been the nearest thing since (he could probably eat three Shredded Wheat too!) - if he thinks he can give it another go, what's the problem? Mid-thirties is hardly ancient by modern standards. If it doesn't come off, he'll be gone in a couple of games, if it does people will pour in to see him.

  • Mark on June 2, 2014, 8:28 GMT

    Ife he's missing it and wants to come back, he is right to give it a go. In T20 he will never bowl more than a 4 over spell and the whole idea is that it should be fun cricket. Certainly, he wouldn't be the first to come back and wouldn't be the oldest either. It's a format that should suit his style of play so, good luck to him.

    Whether or not he will be able to play at the level that he could in 2005-2009 is open to question. His pace will probably be well down and he may struggle to reproduce the batting power that he had, but Fred is Fred and was always a larger than life character. If he produces one telling bowling spell and one two over batting blitz people will probably be more than satisfied with his return and he will draw in spectators who will want to see how he manages.

    Not sure about the damage that he will do replacing a youngster - shouldn't they learn in the 4-day game? More likely they will be inspired by having him around to learn from.

  • calvin on June 2, 2014, 8:24 GMT

    fredye was a good player but it is a mistake to come back u left a legend in the eyes of ur fans. u will leave in tears half the player u was.

  • Owen on June 2, 2014, 6:55 GMT

    Not too sure how to feel about Freddie coming back. On the one hand, it makes me think that his knees weren't quite as bad as they were made out to be (especially when you look at all the other stuff he has been doing since he retired, which can't have been easy on the body), but on the other hand, it means that we get to see the big man playing again.

    I suppose the clincher is that if he is playing cricket, then at least he isn't embarrassing his legacy by performing in reality shows and bogus boxing matches.

  • Android on June 2, 2014, 3:48 GMT

    common Flintoff.. we are eager to see you in next IPL. With love from India..

  • Jem on June 1, 2014, 14:16 GMT

    Fabulous article George, which says exactly what should be said about both Freddie's proposed comeback and the very good reasons for Fred's less than outstanding stats, which have so often led to him being maligned for not "making the most of his talents." His final stats are indeed not as eye-catching as some of the other greats but that is largely due to an inauspicious start to his career when he was a "bit of a fat boy" and also the fact that so often he was playing when only half fit. When at 100% (around 2004-5) his stats stand up with the very best in history.

    As you rightly say, he deserves the chance to resurrect his career, which was prematurely ended through injury in the course of his exploits for England. There really is nothing worse than going through life saying "what if..." or "if only..." and Freddie is definitely not one for regrets! Go for it, Fred and whether or not you make a success of it as we all hope, it will never detract from what you've already achieved!

  • David on June 1, 2014, 2:44 GMT

    The concept of Flintoff's "comeback" only exists within the concept of his "retirement." Essentially, he stopped playing because of injuries, not because he had had his fill. He has had a long recovery period, but his injuries are healed enough, and manageable enough for him to play short format cricket.

    He never retired, he just took a rather long layoff, but being a bit of a daft lad did not really know what else to call it, so he used the word retire, but his head and his heart never left the game.

    His reflexes & hand-eye coordination appear in tip top shape, his dodgy knees/other bits look like they will survive short format cricket, he still hungers to play, and he is a lot younger than many other blokes playing at the top level. Why should he not play? He is finally back from injury. Simple, aint it?

    Welcome back, Fred. Even us Saffa's missed you.