July 22, 2009

Right said Fred

Can Flintoff emulate Botham by helping recapture the urn for a second time, as the latter did in 1985?

The plot is in considerably better shape than the script. Thrills and suspense, cattiness and underdoggedness, small miracles and large helpings of human frailty, Hitchcock meets Pixar: this Ashes series has been a cool-walking, fast-talking, pemanently fizzing advert for the ultimate sporting soap opera that is Ashes cricket - and a slap in the chops for all those dunderheads at the ICC who believe Test matches should be trimmed to four days.

Don't let's get carried away with reminders of 2005 (which was not, despite all the extravagant claims, "The Greatest Series Ever"; that title belongs to the Australia-West Indies scrap of 1960-61, which had just as many nail-biters, the first tie in international annals, and a good many more improbable heroics). It has, nonetheless, been a confoundedly fine start. England, the extremely marginal pre-tour favourites, are one-up, but how they arrived in such a promising position has defied just about all prognostications. Ricky Ponting's men should have won in Cardiff; Andrew Strauss's chaps, unthinkably, not only dominated but actually prevailed at Lord's. Australia have copped more flak and dropped more catches; England have overdone the short stuff and underdone the manners.

The most consistently dangerous spinner has been Nathan Hauritz, not Graeme Swann or Monty Panesar. The most dastardly swinger in town has been Ben Hilfenhaus, not James Anderson. Aside from the wicketkeepers (who have been the most destructive batsmen), the most resourceful and effective allrounder has been Anderson, not Andrew Flintoff, Stuart Broad or Mitchell Johnson. Messrs Cook and Strauss have been much the sturdier opening pair, outclassing the highly touted firm of Hughes & Katich. The only batsman with three scores of 50-plus is not KP, Punter or Mr Cricket, but Paul "Mr MBE" Collingwood, the most self-effacing Ashes hero since David Steele. Swann has more runs than Ravi Bopara. He and Anderson both average more than five members of their side's top eight.

Australian bats have pillaged five times as many centuries and four times as many century stands. Brad Haddin is heading the averages on 76.33, exceeding the combined output of Bopara, Phil Hughes and Mike Hussey. Haddin and Alastair Cook have racked up more boundaries than Ponting and Kevin Pietersen. Ponting has missed more chances than Matt Prior. Prior has scored almost as many runs as Pietersen off fewer than half as many deliveries. Rudi "Slowhand" Koertzen has made more cock-ups than Billy "Denzel Washington" Doctrove. Given its persistent claims that the faster bowlers are all 90mph merchants, the speed gun is in even greater need of a drug test than Koertzen's left arm.

You want omens? England have never lost an Ashes series when their captain has netted a hundred in a victorious Test at HQ - albeit only because Strauss is the founder and lone member of that particular club. The last time England led Australia with three games to play was in 1986, the last time at home, 1977 - on both occasions their hold proved unshakeable. Indeed, with the exception of 1962-63 (Richie Benaud and Co promptly equalised and squared the series), 1956 (Peter May's mob Lakerised the Cobbers in the next two matches) and 1936-37, when Gubby Allen's party contrived to pull off the unique feat of going two-up then losing the last three, every team occupying that position has gone on to take the urn. Turning the tide from here will take something exceptional. And this is not an exceptional Australian party, not by any means.

It isn't all that difficult, nevertheless, to envisage a recovery. By and large, after all, the tourists have out-batted and out-bowled England. Marcus North's forward defensive should be sculpted in bronze and given a plinth at the Tate. Michael Clarke's cover-drive is worthy of an exhibition, his footwork fancier than Gene Kelly, nerve steelier than Ned Kelly. If Hughes can reacquaint himself with Dame Fortune and/or decent umpiring; if Johnson can use Monday's runs as a springboard to relocate radar and confidence; if Brett Lee can regain match fitness at Northampton; if Shane Watson can confound medics and sceptics alike to offer a fifth bowling option... who can say?

Both Botham's and Flintoff's reputations were set in stone by an extended patch of purest purple, outside which, for the most part, adequacy battled with mediocrity and selection depended on distant, misty past rather than present or future

Yet the buts outweigh the ifs. Letting Anderson and Panesar hang on in Wales was foot-shooting at its deftest. Hughes has technical issues - as the freakish and phenomenal almost invariably do. Johnson seems too withdrawn to relish responsibility. For all Tim Nielsen's phlegmatic utterings about Koertzen's clangers, a siege mentality seems to be gaining hold, much as it did in 2005.

WHICH BRINGS US BACK, somewhat inevitably, to The Artist Fondly Known As Freddie. The farewell tour has certainly started with a fanfare. Seventy-six trombones' worth. For all the talk of the team having a better post-2005 record when their erstwhile talisman has been unfit, for all the talk that the dressing room might be more democratic in his absence, it is nigh-on impossible, so mundanely did Broad and Anderson bowl on Sunday, to imagine England having won that Lord's encounter without him.

TAFKAF knew all depended on him on Monday morning if England were to avoid being haunted and hunted down by the ghosts of Adelaide. He knew all eyes would be on his every twitch and growl, every flick of that flexible right wrist, every hint of a pain-induced grimace. His fifth ball, as Simon Barnes so aptly put it in the Times, "knocked fear on the head".

Here is a man who thrives on expectation, comes alive whenever it barges through the door, defies its inhibiting grip, denies its right to unnerve him. Unstinting of pace, effort and discipline from first over to 10th, throwing his body into the fray as if to mock the doubters (let alone that dodgy knee), exuding self-belief and self-appointed destiny: here was a man imposing himself by sheer will. Sinking to his knees and closing his eyes, the reaction to that fifth wicket was a far cry from the manic head-nodding of 2005. You sensed him trying to savour it, encasing the moment in bubble wrap and sending it straight to the main safe of the memory bank, never to be sullied or damaged or forgotten.

Which brings us, equally inevitably, to another brutish allrounder capable of cowing Australians through sheer force of personality, another stranger to self-doubt and self-examination, another Superman without an inner Clark Kent, another Man of the People, another eternal teenager. Comparisons between Flintoff and his spiritual uncle, Ian Botham, are as irresistible as they are odious. More so, in fact, so don't expect one iota of resistance here.

Let's talk stats - which will, after all, be how they define themselves. Flintoff's ODI record is demonstrably better, with scope for improvement now he is planning to cut his workload. In Test terms, Botham, who won 25 more caps, has it by a small street: nearly 1500 more runs, nine more centuries, 158 more wickets, 69 more catches, a superior average with bat and ball, a considerably better bowling strike-rate and 44 hauls of four wickets-plus to Flintoff's 14. The latter rules only in batting strike-rate (61.53 to 60.71), economy-rate (2.97 to 2.99) and sixes (81 to 67). But let's delve further. Time for some micro-statting.

Both men's reputations were set in stone by an extended patch of purest purple, outside which, for the most part, adequacy battled with mediocrity and selection depended on distant, misty past rather than present or future. Botham's streak spanned his first 51 five-dayers, from 28 July 1977 to 12 July 1982, the end of the third Test against India that saw him make his only double-hundred - the precise mid-point of his five-day career. Then form finally dipped, back began to cause gyp and the tabloids, embroiled in a bitter and ethic-free circulation war, ensured that every beery lapse became front-page news. The legend began outperforming the player.

Flintoff's pomp lasted 37 Tests (Rest of the World against Australia reluctantly included). It extended from 31 July 2003 - the start of the Lord's Test against South Africa that produced the batting half of that honours-board double - to 22 March 2006, the final day of the third Test v India in Mumbai, where he led England to a series-squaring win, weighing in mightily with bat and ball. Then came the ankle problems, reducing him to fleeting appearances and bit parts, reintroducing him to mortality, persuading him to seek refuge in celebrity and alcohol. As with Botham, the mind began making promises the body had scant chance of keeping. As with Botham, he would not, could not, countenance concentrating on one discipline at the expense of the other. As with Botham, he had set the bar too high.

During those stretches of form, Flintoff enjoyed a slight upper hand with the bat (2347 runs at 41.91 to 2833 at 38.80), Botham a marked one with the ball: 231 wickets at 23.06, strike-rate 51.30, 28 four-fers or better, to 134 at 27.58, strike-rate 53.50, nine four-fers or better. True, Botham muscled 11 centuries to Flintoff's four, but the latter managed 28 scores of 40-plus to 22. As for the respective impact of those purple patches on the collective effort, the Lancastrian has a decided edge. Flintoff's England won 52.78 of their matches and 60% of their series, Botham's 39.22% and 53.85%.

Both, significantly, had a vampirish yen for Aussie blood, winning four Ashes rubbers, losing none. Flintoff didn't merely win his only series during that span; he dictated its mood and course, becoming only the seventh man (and second England player) ever to couple 400 runs and 20 wickets in any series, and the first for 31 years, matching Tony Greig and trumping Botham. Nobody has subsequently achieved that double. Given the quality of his opponents, given the historic famine England had endured, it stands as arguably the most sustained catalytic performance in Test annals.

Botham won three Ashes rubbers against rather lesser foes, finishing on the winning side in 10 Tests (five, admittedly, against Packerised opponents) while losing just two; his macho-manful contribution amounted to 67 wickets at under 22, 715 runs at 31.09, two centuries and a stream of stunning catches. As with Flintoff, his name is synonymous with a single series, namely 1981. As with Flintoff, his derring-doings seduced a new generation, lengthening the game's shelf life in Britain and beyond.

What does all this tell us? Only that both, at their prolonged peak, lifted themselves and their team-mates when ego and nation most fervently demanded (yes, the Ashes do matter too much to us Poms). And that during that time, both demanded selection as both batsman and bowler, thus fulfilling the prerequisites for true allroundedness, prerequisites only a precious few others have ever met for more than five minutes. Oh, and that both usually wrote their own scripts.

There are only two relevant questions now. Can Flintoff emulate Botham by helping recapture the urn for a second time, as the latter did in 1985? And do we really have to wait another week for the next chapter?

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton