July 27, 2009

Let's get Fred

It's time Australia's think tank latched on to Flintoff's weakness against right-handers

Six feet, four inches of Lancastrian beef, steel and oomph ought to be the main bother filling the minds of Australia's cricket team and their too-many-to-count hangers-on. And one question. If Freddie Flintoff can be overcome, will the Ashes sail home to Oz? And if the answer seems clear, and if the answer is yes, then that's where the really hard deliberations need to begin.

For any get-Fred strategy to work, the first thing to realise is that here is a bowler who eats left-handers for breakfast and Australia have four of them in their top six. Flintoff has lorded over Ashes matchplay since 2005 in a way that makes Jesus-like posturing at wicket-fall almost seem apt. Forty-two wickets in those 12 Tests tell some of the story. But here's another story you mightn't know: of the 42, only 18 were right-handers. Of the 18, a measly six have been specialist batsmen.

Twenty times he's had a crack at Ricky Ponting. Only three times out of 20 has Flintoff uprooted his man. To do so he's had to summon every last drop of oomph. A couple of in-duckers, two trampolining straight balls and one leave-it-and-weep outswinger - "among the best sequence of deliveries I ever received" - cleaned up Ponting at Edgbaston in 2005. He copped a snorter from nowhere that same summer at The Oval. A year later in Melbourne, where Flintoff gave him barely enough room to swing a bat, Ponting lunged at the first loose one and top-edged. And that's it.

Another right-hander, Michael Clarke, has never got out to Flintoff, not in 19 innings. Nudging Clarke up from No. 5 to 4 in the batting order is the closest thing to a no-brainer the Australians will get in these coming weeks. That way, should Flintoff dislodge both openers, both lefties, he would be stuck bowling at the two Australians least likely to bow down and curtsey to him, Ponting and Clarke. Should that pair see off his first spell, they would fancy their chances of surviving till his second.

Two right-handers at the crease is one of those unavoidable little ordeals in life that Flintoff does not particularly look forward to. But to find himself bowling at two right-handers all through the afternoon in his second and then his third spell - well, that's like having your dentist buy the house next door.

It doesn't happen often, but it happened the other day at Lord's, and Clarke and Brad Haddin put on 185. All bar one of Flintoff's wickets in this series have landed in his opening spell of a day's play. That afternoon at Lord's he had to put in a seven-over second spell between lunch and tea. There were bumpers, yorkers, reverse-swingers, snarls. He came thudding in downhill, with the breeze, over the wicket, loving the Lord's slope. His pace started off sizzling and stayed sizzling right through.

Something was missing.

The awkward round-the-wicket angle; that claustrophobic feeling of dread - they weren't there. Balls were jagging in and out but mostly in, which always suits a batsman better. Once or twice an over he'd stray too full or short. And the roar of the crowd, which Flintoff both feeds and feeds off; it sounded more like a snoozy, zonked-out, after-lunch murmur.

A left-hander was what was missing.

Shortly before stumps Flintoff returned for a third spell of three overs. The lights were on, the sun coming and going behind a cloud, the ball shiny and new. It was a champion fast bowler's dream. Of Flintoff's 18 deliveries, only five touched 90 mph. He beat the bat once. Twice he tried bowling bouncers - nippy ones, to be fair - but the strain of it made him plop the ball down so short that Clarke was already ducking before Flintoff looked up.

This is not to say Flintoff had come to resemble some sort of docile shop-floor dummy. Not for a minute. Out of all England's attack he remained by miles the most dangerous. In a way, though, this merely highlighted the lack of danger, the faint air of insipidness, conveyed by his four bowling partners.

So promoting Clarke up the order will help Australia. That still leaves the headache of four left-handers in the top six. Four is probably one and perhaps two too many. Abandoning Phillip Hughes is no solution. Three weeks ago people were not calling him poor young Hughes but amazing young Hughes, the best thing since Victor Trumper. Evel Knievel, were he a Test selector, wouldn't dare give up on Hughes this soon.

But Shane Watson could sensibly come in for Marcus North. Watson - his achy-breaky back and thigh permitting - might even offer Australia a little bowling insurance.

That leaves three left-handers in the top six. Which brings us to Mike Hussey. "He's so far out of form it's ridiculous," pronounced Geoff Lawson on series eve. And indeed, when Flintoff is on song and around the wicket, Hussey tends to make batting look like some particularly perplexing branch of nuclear physics.

Statistics invariably come down on Mr Cricket's side. Here's one stat that makes a reasonable case for the guillotine. Since moving down the order, Hussey has come to the crease 36 times with 65 or more runs on the scoreboard and averages 69.06; when trouble strikes (23 times) and Australia are two or three wickets down for under 65, he averages 31. Are the selectors rock-certain that this is the chap to bail a team out of this tightest of tight squeezes?

Out of all England's attack Flintoff remained by miles the most dangerous. In a way, though, this merely highlighted the lack of danger, the faint air of insipidness, conveyed by his four bowling partners

Brad Hodge, a right-hander, did not make the original squad. Nor did any other specialist back-up batsman, right-handed or otherwise. To swap Hussey for a ring-in might smack of panic. To dump two batsmen mid-series could be considered risky. But then, to do nothing is risky.

Some might say Australia did nothing or nearly nothing to counter Flintoff back in 2005. "A computer isn't much use," was Shane Warne's sage observation in My Illustrated Career, "when Freddie Flintoff is reverse-swinging the ball into your feet at 90 miles per hour."

Flintoff's fetishes were apparent even then. In the famous Old Trafford draw he went kapow against Matthew Hayden, Simon Katich and Adam Gilchrist - left-handers all - but was thwarted by Ponting. Prising out just one of Brett Lee or Glenn McGrath at the death proved beyond Flintoff. But did anyone in the Australian camp take notice?

John Buchanan, the coach, has since confessed that he sought "to pull back from the players so I could spend more time being strategic… finding tasks and experiences to expand [their] horizons". The first three lines of a pre-tour booklet Buchanan handed out to his men at the University of Queensland gym made no mention of Flintoff. They didn't even mention the Ashes:

We will cross off each series as we march towards WC 2007.
Our aim is to not only win each series but also to know that, individually and as a team, we are improving our total performance.
The vision is to arrive at WC 2007 the best skilled team the world has seen - technically, physically, mentally, tactically and "team".

The rest is fairly ugly history. Now when Freddie dismisses Nathan Hauritz or Peter Siddle he sinks down on one knee and bows his head and hoists his arms aloft and makes like he's Jesus. And no one quibbles, not even the Australian players.

A touch less deference might actually help Australia beat Flintoff. It might be time to wonder what Steve Waugh, or a Chappell brother, or any grizzly Australian cricketer of old would say. They'd say something like:

"What? Knock a tailender over, didja? Plonker!"

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009