July 2004

Force with feeling

Explosive and brutal on the field

Explosive and brutal on the field. Quiet and polite off it. Emma John on the two sides of Andrew Flintoff

© Getty Images
He is known as the most exciting player of his generation. He bats, he bowls and is the safest pair of hands the English slip cordon has ever known. His big hitting has made him popular the world over. The one-day game was made for him and he for it. Yet his figures are surprisingly ordinary in the shortened version: an average of 23.21 with the bat, no centuries and only nine fifties in 116 appearances. So what is all the fuss about Ian Botham?

Consider another player. He has played 45 fewer games but scored three more fifties. He averages 30.21. His wickets have come at 25.08 compared with Botham's 28.54, with a best haul of 4 for 14 against Botham's 4 for 31. Andrew Flintoff is not the new anyone.

"I just play the game as I enjoy playing it and it seems to work," he says. Candour is unsurprising in a man who so openly expresses himself on the pitch. Yet he does not see himself as a crowd-pleaser. "I trust my game, I trust my technique, I trust what I do. That's the way I play. If people enjoy the way I play as well, that's fantastic but it's not a conscious effort." There is no affectation to his game. The Flintoff bumper sticker would read "Love me, love my batting".

Flintoff sits among the empty stands of Headingley's rugby league ground. A filmy cloud clings to the pitch and a large sign invites no one in particular to keep off the grass. The fogginess and emptiness combine to give the place an air of silent expectation, as if nothing here matters until the next game kicks off. Flintoff is similarly subdued before the second Test against New Zealand. Those who know him well talk of his infectious ebullience and big-hearted humour but here, plucked from the bosom of his England team-mates, he is quiet, polite, professional. He seems to save his personality for his playing.

© Getty Images
It is there, on the pitch, that one sees what he is really like. There is the patient generosity, for instance, towards those who drop catches off him. He had to wait 32 Tests for a five-for, yet greets each missed chance with a smile. Does his patience ever wear thin? "Not really," he replies. "Maybe a couple of times when you're playing abroad and you're hot and sweaty and one goes down. But I've dropped catches at slip and, if one goes down, it's not through lack of preparation or trying. Slip is the hardest position on the ground to field. I've got sympathy for people because it's worse for them. When one goes down, the last thing you need is the bowler effing and jeffing at you."

His bowling tells its own tale - of determination. Flintoff, one imagines, was one of those kids who bowled because he did not want to let go of the ball. But at 14 his back said no. Although he started bowling again at 20, his back problem was kept at bay only by regular cortisone injections and was not properly solved until 2001. "It's only since then that I've been able to practise my bowling as I would like to practise," says Flintoff, who has felt his body becoming stronger as he gets older. "In some ways I'm quite an inexperienced bowler, because even though I'm 26 I've been bowling for only two-and-a-half years."

But it is his batting that says most about him. It is exuberant, seriously physical and larger than life. Most of all, it is a lot of fun. The South African allrounder Andrew Hall, with whom Flintoff sparred last summer, says Flintoff's disregard for the rules (play yourself in, don't take risks at the start of your innings) is one of the things that makes him so dangerous. "He likes to get on with the game. Even in Tests, in his first 10 runs or so there's always a couple of boundaries," says Hall. "He never believes he's not on song."

© Getty Images
Alex Tudor describes bowling to him as "daunting" - understandable after Flintoff hit him for 34 runs in one eight-ball over in 1998 - although Tudor says that in head-to-heads he still comes out top. "I'd put in two gullies because he used to play on the up and hit it to second gully - Ben Hollioake took a couple of catches off me there."

If that is Flintoff's weakness, what is his strength? "It's his power," says Tudor. "Where a normal man would have to hit it extremely hard, he can clear it even if he mistimes it." Nor does he rile easily. Bounce him or beat him and you get the same smile, but never a word. "He imposes himself by his stature," says Hall. "It's part of his game plan. He likes to have that edge and physical presence."

Flintoff has been criticised for being one-dimensional, which is ironic considering that, when he charges down the wicket and smashes the ball over the bowler's head, you expect it to come screaming out of the television and into your living room. Still, his technique is something that he has improved. "It is a lot better now, my defence is a lot better. I feel my decision-making is better too, even though every now and then I get it wrong like at Lord's [against New Zealand]. But that'll happen. I'm still aggressive and try to take the bowlers on but there's also a time, like at Antigua, when I can bat for a long time." And, whatever critics say, his opponents do not see him as a one-trick pony. "He's not a limited player who can only play in certain areas of the wicket," says Hall. "He improvises well and he can be really destructive."

The impression he gives as he leans forward, hands clasped between knees, bright blue eyes focused entirely on the job in hand, is that Flintoff just wants to do whatever is asked of him. His loyalty to the cause and to his team-mates is integral to his character. He admits, for instance, that playing for Lancashire before the Headingley Test made him "more nervous there than I've been for a long time. Going back to your county, when you don't play many games for them, and somebody has to miss out for you to play, you feel you've got to do something special."

© Getty Images
For England he has sometimes endangered his fitness out of an eagerness to please his captain and bowled more than is good for him. While that is being addressed by Duncan Fletcher, it is clear where Flintoff's heart lies. "The batting's the fun part and the bowling's the hard yards," he says. "I would like to bat up the order and, if that means less bowling, then that's fine."

And his Batman approach - "Biff! Whoosh! Pow!" - is fun for everyone except the bowlers. It recaptures the freedom of the playground, although he fears that it is on the wane there. "You see kids of nine and 10 being coached how to hold a cricket bat and how to stand correctly and the forward defensive and at that age they should just go for as many shots as they can," says Flintoff. "That's what I was encouraged to do. My dad didn't put any pressure on me like some fathers. I've got out to some horrible shots but he just let me play and so did the coaches."

While parental pressure was minimal, Flintoff found sibling rivalry a useful motivator. "It was an immense help having an older brother because there was a four-year gap and you try and keep up all the time," he says of brother Chris, who recently returned from Japan where he played club cricket. "He probably helped me as much as anyone."

That may be as much as anyone except Rachael, his fiancée, who seems to have given him a stability and confidence that has manifested itself in his batting. They moved into a new house in Mere (Cheshire) in October, Flintoff painting one room before deciding to get a decorator in. They are expecting a baby this summer and planning a wedding for next. "My personal life is ... " - he pauses - "perfect, to be honest," though sleep, for which Flintoff is famed, may be harder to come by when the baby arrives. Until then - and until the next match - all is quiet on the home front.

This article was first published in the July issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
Click here for further details.