Cricket: Consistency is the target for Flintoff

Lancashire's young heavyweight is determined to overcome injuries and become a fixture in the England team

THERE MUST have been a mistake. Andrew Flintoff should have been waiting in the pavilion but apparently someone else was there. Not that you could say anything because the figure you confronted had the wide- as-a-pavilion shoulders and muscle-bound bulk of a prop forward. Perhaps a stray Springbok had been checking out the gym and decided it could not take the punishment.

Only when the flat vowels of Preston emanated from under the Slazenger cap was the mistaken identity revealed. Flintoff is a big man, far larger than you anticipate in a cricketer, even compared to West Indian fast bowlers who touch clouds at the apex of their actions. And this meeting was when he is a sprightly two stones lighter than his maximum.

That was 18 months ago when Lancashire needed industrial weighing machines to record his 19st-plus, 6ft 4in physique. Now, in readiness for England's forthcoming Test series, the 21-year-old is a relatively emaciated 17st 3lb thanks to a training programme supervised by the former rugby league international Steve Hampson. The trim shape had coincided with extra nip in his bowling, or it had until he arrived in South Africa.

Much store had been put on Flintoff filling the all-rounder's role, but a back problem which bedevilled him a year ago has returned and on the tour to date he has bowled precisely zero overs. Medical bulletins have been issued almost daily and the latest says he will have a try in the nets in the hope he will be fit for next week's first Test. If not he will have to try to gain a place purely as a batsman.

Against the inelegantly named Free State/Griqualand West this week he walloped 102 runs, but the asset that makes his batting so destructive, his formidable size, could be putting a strain on his body when he has the ball in his hand. And he knows better than most that an all-rounder who cannot bowl is a cricketer reduced by more than half.

"My aim is to bowl in the first Test," Flintoff said yesterday, "but it's not going to be an instant thing. It's only the bowling that bothers me. The batting and fielding are fine, but I want to be regarded as a genuine all-rounder."

Size, weight, strain: you expect it is going to be a persistent equation in his career, and already he uses the days when he could rival Lennox Lewis for poundage as a motivation and a warning. "I can put weight on if I look at a bag of chips," he said, "but I hadn't realised I reached 19st until I jumped on the scales and had a fitness test towards the end of the 1998 season. I wasn't bowling because of back trouble and that was part of the problem, I wasn't getting the exercise. I'm a big lad with big bones and I'm never going to be 14st. I just have to be careful with what I eat and drink."

His back apart, to date the problem that has troubled Flintoff most is an ability to match accomplishment with much-anticipated potential. True, he has scored the fastest first-class century in England since Viv Richards 20 years before - 158 off 61 deliveries against Gloucestershire - and he pulverised 38 off one over from Alex Tudor against Surrey in 1998, but even so there is a slight air of disappointment.

Partly that is due to hype. Any bowler who knows which end of the bat to hold is branded the new Ian Botham, and Flintoff is a lot nearer than most. But even Australians such as Matt Hayden were impressed by the teenager's timing when he first hit county cricket, stating that none of his compatriots could compare, so the fuss was not entirely without foundation. Yet his two Tests to date yielded only 17 runs in three innings and one wicket and it barely needs saying that he had a lacklustre World Cup. The flame has been close enough to light the blue touch-paper but England await the rocket going off.

It is an analogy with which Flintoff, known throughout cricket as Freddy after the cartoon character, Fred Flintstone, concurs. "I have something to prove to myself and others," he said. "If I want to be a regular fixture in the England side it's about time I did something. I have to work on being more consistent. I can play one big innings, smashing a 50 or a 100 really quickly, and then go a couple of weeks without scoring a run. That can't happen, I've got to perform week in, week out.

"Hopefully I can show everyone that I've got a different side to my game rather than just big fours and sixes. At times I've got carried away with that a bit, I played a few big innings and thought I could do it all the time. I wanted to live up to what people were saying. I've learned from that. It's important to build an innings, trying to keep the same tempo throughout your innings rather than getting to 30 thinking `I'm well set' and getting caught at long-off."

At least he has precedent on his side because his tour to South Africa with England A last winter was a success and this time he will have contemporaries as companions rather than heroes. "When you go into an England dressing- room with some of the world's best players in there it's quite daunting to be honest. This time I have been around, I know what it's like and I can act a bit more like myself. There are young lads on this tour I've known for years and years."

These include Graeme Swann, a player he first encountered as a nine- year-old when Lancashire juniors met Northamptonshire, and another acquaintance from second XI cricket, Yorkshire's Gavin Hamilton. Paradoxically, the trio are probably competing for the one all-rounder's place but as Flintoff says: "It's a question of who is performing. If it's not me and it's Gavin good luck to him because he's one of my mates." If that sounds very que sera, Flintoff is a mixture of the David Gower-like laid-back and the Bothamesque hyperactive. He does not read newspapers, he says, because his attention span usually diverts him, yet he rarely suffers from nerves. Even on his Test debut against South Africa in 1998 he surprised himself. "I was over-confident if anything," he said. "I remember feeling as good as I'd done in ages and I got out for 17 trying an expansive shot.

"It's 18 months since I last played and I think I've come on quite a lot since then. I'll have to make sure it doesn't happen again this winter."

At least one potential distraction has been removed because Flintoff agreed a one-year contract with Lancashire a few days before the 17-strong England party departed for South Africa, scotching rumours that he was due to sign for Hampshire. "It's nice to be over," he said. "I've read a lot of things in the papers and on Ceefax - where I'm going, what I'm doing - so it's nice to have everything sorted. I never really contemplated leaving to be honest. It was just a question of getting the best deal for myself and the club."

The best. If he can do as well on the pitch as he has done in his negotations everyone will be happy and his reputation will match the size of his blazer. Extra large.

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