Cricket: Man of presence and future

Andy Flintoff, a big player with big potential, is back in the England shop window. By Iain Fletcher in Harare
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The Independent Online
SOME PEOPLE are born with a presence. Whenever they enter a room, whatever they say or do, they affect the atmosphere - in fact they are the atmosphere.

Size is not a prerequisite but it helps. It is more a state of mind, a belief and force of personality that, although invisible, is tangible. Andy Flintoff, 21 years old, 6ft 5in tall, a light snack below 17 stone and built like an ox, has presence. Flintoff, butt of numerous dressing- room jokes, instigator of boredom-relieving gags and games, captivates. Just accept that Flintoff has an aura and you can understand why he will feature in the full England team for many years to come.

Talent is one thing, and according to every team-mate on this trip Flintoff is "talented beyond belief", but it is attitude that completes the man. Talent often falls by the wayside, attitude bulldozes through it leaving a straight path to continued success.

He played the last two Tests against South Africa in the summer and hardly featured. Flintoff bagged a pair in the series decider at Headingley but it doesn't faze him. "I know I didn't do well but I believed I was ready to play," he explained, frustrated by the rain, which ruined the first "unofficial" Test against Zimbabwe. Eyeing the growing puddles on the outfield, which finally saw the match abandoned as a draw yesterday, he was resigned as he waited for his chance to bat. "Can't help the weather, can we?" he sighed as he recalled his senior baptism. "I enjoyed the whole occasion, the atmosphere, the crowd, everything," he said.

"I have great belief in my own ability and this takes away a lot of nerves. I'm not really a nervous cricketer anyway, particularly when batting, so I go out to enjoy myself."

Unfortunately, January and February represents the rainy season in Zimbabwe so there has been desperately little cricket played on the England A tour so far, but the down to earth mentality of the colossus from Preston cuts short any grumbling. "Could be worse. Could be running round Old Trafford with rest of lads."

Many judges believed he should have been on the full tour but Flintoff is remarkably mature for someone who claims still to be growing. "I thought I had a chance," he explained. "But I didn't have a good second half of the season, so in reality I'm pleased to have been selected for this A tour. This is a shop window and I have to use it to develop my game and push myself back into the full side. There's only one way to do that and that's to perform. It's as simple as that really."

For Flintoff, a prodigious hitter, the World Cup in May in England seems tailor-made as a platform to relaunch his international career. He has the ability to change a game in the course of a few overs and in the shorter version this is priceless. "I'm an aggressive player," he explained, "and I like getting after it and dominating. I am still learning to curb my natural instincts occasionally, but I love hitting the ball."

Although he hardly bowled last year as Lancashire wisely decided to nurture his fragile back, he is assuredly in the all-rounder category and this is why his development is so pivotal to England in the future. "Peter Sleep was fantastic coaching me. Even now he tells me that patience can be aggressive when bowling. Basically, I like to hit every ball for four when I'm batting and defence is a second option, but you can't be like that when bowling. I want to take wickets every ball but I've learned that bowling maidens is aggressive, too."

Three months' intensive training in the winter has certainly paid dividends and constructive back exercises suggest that he will bowl a lot more this summer. "My trainer used to play rugby league for Great Britain and he had me up swimming at 6.30 every morning," Flintoff said. "He has changed my entire lifestyle, diet, training, the lot and since October I've lost two stone and feel fitter and stronger than I ever have. I'd never really trained before but I now realise you have to. And since coming here I've worked with the fitness coach and physio specifically to strengthen and stabilise my back." He shrugs his shoulders. "When we start playing I'll tell you if it's working."

Not one for long-term planning or strategy - "I just look after today" - Flintoff is clearly desperate to play some cricket. Two wet days into the match and a wicket falls. Before the victim has had time to start the slow march home, Flintoff is halfway to the wicket bristling with intent, a man in a hurry. He bludgeons 80 not out in a total of 192 and his team-mates have discovered that only a well- told ghost story scares him. Thankfully there are not many of them in cricket.