Yes, Flintoff is fallible
Britain woke up this morning to a sobering realisation. Andrew Flintoff - the nation's hero, Mr Incredible, Superman, Leading Cricketer in the World, etc - is capable of making a mess of things.
To be English yesterday was to experience two forms of disbelief, both carrying a strong whiff of the 1990s. One went like this: they can't really be dropping this many catches, can they? The odd four or five we're used to, especially at Lord's where slip fielders can lose the ball in the crepuscular background of the lower tiers, but an entire innings-worth seems a bit much. The other went like this: the captain can't be dropping this many clangers, can he?
This was Flintoff's first appearance in front of a home crowd since England won the Ashes and his life changed for good. He has made it quite clear that he regards some of the publicity with distaste, as anyone with a good brain would, and for the last two days he captained as if determined to prove that he is human after all. While doing many things well, from batting (a pre-declaration cameo) to smiling (he became more and more cheery as England snatched a draw from the jaws of victory), he made five blunders:
1. Not having a third man. In England in May, third man is well named: he's the first person you need after the wicketkeeper and first slip. Not having one is like not having a fine leg. Sure enough, Sri Lanka picked up dozens of runs down there. Never mind the dropped catches, England could probably have won the match just by having a third man, because the scoring was slow anyway and one of the seven men who made half-centuries would surely have got frustrated.
2. Not having a short leg. Flintoff the bowler showed his usual willingness to rough the batsmen up, and Sajid Mahmood matched him snorter for snorter. But what's the point if you don't have anyone under the helmet to snaffle those little pops and prods?
3. Overbowling himself. It is said of bowling captains that they either give themselves too many overs or too few. In India, Flintoff disproved the rule by getting it just about right. Here, he overdid it almost as glaringly as he did with the drinks cabinet on the open-top bus last year. He handled himself as if trying to join the long Lancashire tradition of slave-driving bosses. Half the point of having five bowlers is that Flintoff can be used sparingly. But he gave himself 68.3 overs out of 254.3 - more than a quarter of the total. If any other captain had done it to him, you'd call it cruel. If he had been taking wickets, it might have been hard to take himself off. But the harder he worked, the less he achieved. His strike rate in the match was 102, compared to 60 for Hoggard and 57 for Mahmood. This was Flintoff regressing to the way he bowled two years ago - slower (seldom above 84mph), more economical and less incisive than his Ashes self.
4. Underbowling Monty Panesar. Out of 199 overs in Sri Lanka's second innings, Panesar was entrusted with only 27. Flintoff treated him as if he were one of eight bowlers. And the ball kept following him in the field, so Panesar was forever doing what he is not very good at (running, sliding, picking up and throwing) and seldom doing what he is there to do - bowl slowly, tease batsmen with flight and guile, plug up an end, and pick up the odd wicket. On Saturday, he did get a decent go late in the day, and rose to the challenge, taking two for 21 off 15 overs. Yet over the next two days, he was given only 12 overs out of 135. It was as if Flintoff had sent him to the naughty step for not being a good enough fielder. But if that had been the idea, half the team would have had to join him.
5. Enforcing the follow-on. With hindsight, it is tempting to knock Flintoff's declaration, which came an hour earlier than the pundits expected. But he got that right. He sensed that Sri Lanka were vulnerable, and rather than settling for a wicket or two before the close on Friday, he was rewarded with six. Next day, taking wickets became a lot harder as the tail wagged and Mahmood blew hot and cold as he does. The signs were there. With a lead of 359 in his pocket, Flintoff would have been better off batting again, rattling up 200 off 40 overs, and sending in the Sri Lankans to bat last, thoroughly demoralised - indeed de-Muralised, as Murali's bowling would have been taken out of the game. In a current Sky trailer, Flintoff is shown asleep. He surely was when he asked Sri Lanka to follow on.
Going into this match, England thought they had four captains - the injured Michael Vaughan, the recovering Marcus Trescothick who has done the job in two Tests, Flintoff who started so brightly in the Indian Test series, and Andrew Strauss who shared with Flintoff in the Indian one-dayers and did well. Now it looks as if they only have one. Trescothick is still finding his feet again, Strauss needs to find his hands, and Flintoff has feet of clay after all. He's still a national treasure and a great allrounder, but he's not Mr Infallible: in fact (whisper it), he may be more of a Ricky Ponting, a wonderful player best left to play. Vaughan's knee has just become even more important.
Tim de Lisle is a former editor of Wisden. These days he just edits www.timdelisle.com.