Rocky Flintoff catches eye as Under-19s enter field of dreams

Family connections run deep for England's next generation in their series with Sri Lanka

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Rocky Flintoff was making his England Under-19 debut, England U19s vs Sri Lanka U19s, 1st Youth ODI, Chelmsford, June 28, 2024

Rocky Flintoff was making his England Under-19 debut  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

The transient nature of age-group cricket means it is both part of the journey and the destination in itself. For some of the players on show in Chelmsford on Friday afternoon, their experience of playing for their country at Under-19 level will, in a few years' time, be just another treasured memory - an interesting anecdote to slip into conversation from time to time, to remind those around them that they, too, were contenders once.
For a select handful, however, by the time their careers have reached full bloom, this first ODI between England and Sri Lanka will be looked back on as just another stepping stone in what might come across as an inevitable rise to the top. Some kids, the pundits are bound to tell you in glorious hindsight, just looked the part from the very start.
Never mind that such sweeping judgements are sure to gloss over all manner of pitfalls along the way. Loss of form and injury are common to even the most established of sports stars, but loss of mojo, motivation … mentors even. Who knows what obstacles will be sent to try this latest crop of talented teenagers, but you only have to click on a random scorecard from the long and illustrious history of Under-19 Internationals, to realise that the players who reach the game's true heights are not just the exception, but exceptional.
Which brings us to Rocky Flintoff, the 16-year-old son of a man who made his own England Under-19 debut in the Caribbean in January 1995, before going on to greater things, to put it mildly.
The family connections within the current England U19 set-up are something to behold. Flintoff's team-mates in his maiden international appearance included Haydon Mustard, son of former England keeper Phil, and Farhan Ahmed, brother of current England legspinner Rehan, as well as the captain Luc Benkenstein, whose father Dale captained Durham to their maiden County Championship triumph in 2008. "None of us see it as a burden," Benkenstein insisted, when asked about the pressures of living up to such standards. "We're all pretty grateful to have family members involved in the game and I think we have all used it to our advantage. It's cool that we're all in the same boat."
But no matter what sort of hot-housing and expectation management has gone into this latest crop of prodigies, there's been something especially compelling about Rocky Flintoff's brief explosion into the public consciousness.
In part this can be explained by his father's incredible profile - not simply because he was the hero of the 2005 Ashes, but because of what happened next: the injury-enforced retirement in 2010, followed by a brief T20 comeback, and the sense in the subsequent decade that he had left cricket behind to move onto shinier media opportunities.
But if, in 2022, Flintoff's acclaimed Field of Dreams documentary was the first inkling that his love of the sport had not been diminished by his absence from it, then that feeling was shown to be entirely mutual last summer, when - after being invited to get involved with England's backroom staff - he was able to reveal the scars of his horrific Top Gear accident, safe in the knowledge that cricket fans would never dream of judging him by the same superficial standards that might have existed elsewhere in his public life.
And now, in the midst of this maelstrom, a mini-me has emerged. Footage of Rocky's second XI exploits for Lancashire started doing the rounds in April, and not simply because of the novelty factor of seeing another Flintoff in action (or two in fact, with his elder brother Corey making his twos debut in the same match against Yorkshire).
Moreover it was Rocky's mannerisms that stopped the live-streamers in their tracks. That indefinable economy of power in his most formidable strokes, whether lofted down the ground or picked up off the hips; the extra split-second that he seems to have to assess the ball's length and thump it right beneath his eyeline. Everything, including the down-swing of his pull shot, coupled with that coy saunter down the pitch even as the ball was still sailing over the ropes, could have been grafted from his father's glory years of two decades earlier.
None of which guarantees anything like the same levels of success as Rocky's career develops - particularly, dare one say it, because of the scrutiny that is already built into his performances. But if his maiden England innings of 22 from 25 balls is anything to go by, he's got the gumption to roll with the expectations. In an already losing cause, he held his own with three confident boundaries and a third straight drive that smashed the non-striker's stumps, before taking one liberty too many and holing out to mid-off.
In the end, though, the details matter not at this stage of the journey. For the record, England were unpicked by a typically canny, hard-edged Sri Lanka team whose skills were just that little bit more rounded - as is often the case for Asian teams at age-group level, unrestricted as they are by bowling limits and equipment prerogatives, and other ECB regulations that safeguard on the one hand but throttle spontaneity on the other.
And they too have a host of heroes, of whom imitation will forever be the sincerest form of flattery. The enduring influence of Lasith Malinga, and latterly his original clone Matheesha Pathirana, is abundantly clear in the splay-stanced slingers of Dumindu Sewmina, armed with the new ball. Then, through the middle overs comes a conveyor-belt of wicket-to-wicket spinners, in particular Thisara Ekanayake and Vihas Thewmika, who hustle through their overs, backed up by raucous support in the field, to claim five wickets between them.
At times while the match was slipping inexorably away, it was not unlike watching the fate of England's senior team in Guyana the previous day - trial by spin clearly remains a national shortcoming, even if a gutsy stand of 90 in 16 overs between Benkenstein and his fellow Essex rookie, Noah Thain, at least guarded against a more comprehensive margin.
But the rich promise on display could not be diminished by the scoreline. Among the most eye-catching was another of England's four debutants, Harry Moore, who was born on April 26, 2007 - two days before that year's World Cup final in Barbados, for those who really like to feel old.
Despite having only just turned 17, Moore is a sky-scraping 6ft 5in already, and there were clear shades of Steve Harmison in his gangly-limbed approach and fierce lift from back of a length. Last summer he became Derbyshire's youngest-ever debutant in the Metro Bank Cup; the prospect of him and Leicestershire's own bean-pole Josh Hull leading the line into England's future is a tantalising one.
The class act of England's top-order, meanwhile, was at the other end of the growth charts. Keshana Fonseka is barely 5ft tall in his little stockinged feet, but armed with a crunchy cover-drive, he launched England's chase with a fluent 25 from 27 balls. The glee with which he was extracted, via a loose cut to gully, betrayed the extent to which Sri Lanka rated his game.
Who knows how far any of this kids can take their games, but they are surrounded by inspiration wherever they turn in this formative stage of their development. Among those who have been assisting the team's preparations for the Sri Lanka series are Graeme Swann, who played in England's only Under-19 World Cup winning team in 1998, and Ian Bell, who was famously described by Dayle Hadlee as the best 16-year-old he had ever seen.
It is arguable that Bell's greatest achievement, over and above his 22 Test centuries, 13,331 international runs and four Ashes victories, is the fact that he lived up to those expectations of his precocious youth. He stands as proof that it has been done, and can be done again.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket