Flintoff shows old sparkle on comeback
At precisely 12.19pm on Saturday afternoon, a member of St Annes' first team parked his large black BMW in the Vernon Road car park, collected his cricket bag from the boot and loped up the stairs into the home dressing room. Only the Sky cameras and the gaggle of spectators suggested he was anyone special.
There was no entourage of minders, no designer gear, no sponsored kit. Both popular and populist, Andrew Flintoff, 36, enjoys being one of the lads.
Even as the crowd gathered to watch the club's most famous old boy step up his search for cricket fitness in preparation for a possible return to T20 cricket with Lancashire in Friday's Roses match at Old Trafford, Flintoff sat on the outfield and listened with his new colleagues to captain Andy Kellett's brief team-talk. Before long, he was also joking with the Penrith opponents, all of whom seemed disarmed and chatty.
"It's brilliant," said visiting chairman Andy Hill, as he supervised the warm-ups. "The lads were texting each other with the news yesterday. It's just fantastic and we can't wait. One of modern cricket's leading allrounders will be playing against little old Penrith."
Just prior to the match, Flintoff went into the clubhouse. "I hope he doesn't go into that room with his cricket shoes on," said one pavilion-proud stalwart. "I'll bollock him if he does." He needn't have worried. The last thing Flintoff wanted on Saturday was special treatment.
His cricket offered illustrations of both formidable talent and curious frailty. After going through a series of stretching exercises, Flintoff came on first change at the Vernon Road End and had Greg Hall caught behind by David Watson in his sixth over. He swung the ball both ways and bowled at sufficient pace to hustle good Minor Counties batsmen with his bouncer.
But it was only when he was brought back into the attack from the Highbury Road End that Flintoff displayed his ability to take a cricket match and change it with a moment of extraordinary brilliance. Penrith's professional, Paul Hindmarch, was playing a fine attacking hand and was carrying his side's innings with an innings of 65 when he whacked a straight drive back to the bowler, head high and heavens hard.
Flintoff stuck out his right hand and grabbed the ball. There was the briefest moment of silence among the 300-strong crowd. Hindmarch stood stunned at the crease before trooping off.
Recall that run out of Ricky Ponting at The Oval in 2009. In its particular context, the dismissal of Hindmarch belongs in the same category. Once again, it showed that while Flintoff may not be a great cricketer, he remains a cricketer capable of great deeds. In one astonishing moment of hand-eye co-ordination, he turned this Northern League game in St Annes' favour. Having been 113 for 5 and with their professional in full flow, Penrith were bowled out for 132 on a pitch where the par score was something over 200.
"Some club cricketers would have been too frightened to put their hands up there," observed the venerable former player John Kettlestring. "A lot couldn't have done so if they'd wanted to and most of the rest wouldn't have caught it in any case."
By tea, Flintoff had added another wicket to his bag and finished with 3-26 from 12 impressive overs. His batting, however, will not have offered quite as much comfort to the Old Trafford coaches. Having stroked a couple of singles, he "blocked" his third ball to long-off, thus giving medium-pacer Jonathan Osborne and fielder Jack White a dismissal they will dine out on for years ahead. St Annes crept home by two wickets in the hand and Flintoff posed in a team photograph for something like a hundred club members. It is an open secret how much they love him in this part of the Fylde coast. He plainly likes coming back, too.
"I have really enjoyed it," he said. "Turning up this morning, managing to get back on the field. I have not played here for 20 years and it's like I have never been away.
"It's just crept up on me this. It's not something that was a goal of mine, that I set out to do. It's just come around quite innocently. And that's been the nice thing about it. I'm not chasing anything. I'm just enjoying it. Why shouldn't I? I like cricket."