Cricket World Cup: Flintoff the real one-off

The Newcomer: Andrew Flintoff of England; talks to a bold young buck who could prove a big hit this summer
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The Independent Online
WHILE ENGLAND'S World Cup hopes lay dormant among the debris of poorly handled contract negotiations, confused tactical thinking and a desperate lack of form from key players, one bright spot on the horizon was the emergence of a potential new star for the English game and its diehard fans to cling on to.

The shock selection for the tournament, Andrew "Fred" Flintoff, 21, 6ft 5in and 17 stone of muscle, can hit a ball a very long way and in the carnival atmosphere that is one-day cricket, that demands attention. The Essex bowlers certainly suffered in a recent National League fixture when Flintoff plundered 143 off only 66 deliveries. Those figures on their own are astounding but considering 114 of them came in only 24 deliveries (nine sixes, 15 fours) it stands to reason that his team-mates would have asked him what on earth he was doing with the other seven overs. Pedestrian indeed. " It was just one of those days when everything felt right and obviously went right," Flintoff explained. "I didn't set out to do it but I felt pretty good and just kept seeing balls that I thought I could hit." And hit them he certainly did.

His style may be pure beefcake - "I just want to hit every ball to the boundary" - but with wise counsel from batting partners and the rest of the England set-up, he could turn a match in a few overs. Such ability is priceless. Witness the last two World Cups and the players who immediately come to mind. In 1996, Sanath Jayasuriya drew gasps of admiration from cricket watchers around the globe with the daring of his strokeplay. The first overs of Sri Lanka's innings were whirlwinds of flashing blades and balls disappearing between, over and through fielders. He was helped by the 15-over fielding restriction and the placid pitches, but it was the brilliance of his play that sticks in the mind.

Tactically, England are behind the rest of the world. In Sharjah recently England fielded two pinch-hitters; that their opening efforts were unsuccessful almost goes without saying. Jayasuriya was considered a pinch-hitter in 1996 when the policy was at its most fashionable but that was a misconception. He was successful because he played proper cricket shots, punished bowlers who strayed on width and length and played aggressively - but he plays in the same vein in Tests. His square-cut over cover for six at The Oval last year in the one-off Test against England was a glorious demonstration of timing and power.

In 1992, it was Inzamam-ul-Haq who grabbed attention. Young, little known and, like Jayasuriya, fearless. Batting in the middle-order, Inzamam would wander to the crease and with a carefree swagger loft the ball over long- off and long-on. The small boundaries in New Zealand suited his brand of straight hitting but again it is the classical nature of the shots that is important. Inzamam and Jayasuriya did not slog, and England must impress that on Flintoff.

His power brings most boundaries in world cricket within his range, so he should concentrate on his strengths and let the bowlers worry about him. In only his second one-day international, against India during the recent Sharjah debacle, he rashly swung across the line to Venkatesh Prasad. Selecting who to hit is crucial for Flintoff because in the previous over he had been dropped at deep mid-wicket before disdainfully propelling the medium pace of Robin Singh deep into the desert. Block, nudge and "nurdle" the good uns and then let loose on the back-up "filler-inners". Some bowlers demand respect, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Curtly Ambrose and Javagal Srinath to name but a few, so the England hierarchy should be protecting Flintoff from these and instilling patience and selectivity into his cricket.

That important educative process has already started in Flintoff himself. "I hadn't played one-day international cricket before Sharjah and I definitely feel that I learned a lot from the trip," he explained on his return from the desert. "The bowling is so much better, so I have to choose when to hit. It doesn't bother me who the bowler is because a bad ball is a bad ball whoever bowled it, but some bowlers bowl a lot fewer than others."

He is aware that to some extent he must rein in his adventurous approach, without suppressing his natural instincts. "It's important I try to remain composed, concentrate and don't get over-confident. I've always liked to dominate and attack when I'm at the crease but I probably need to play with a little more restraint at times because there have been occasions when I've got myself out caught at long-on or at cover. I don't think there is much wrong with my game plan and nobody has told me to change it, but I need to choose which ball to hit and which is better to leave."

Not that any worry about his approach is taking the edge off his joy at playing for England. "All I ever wanted to do was play for my country and I haven't stopped smiling since being picked for the World Cup, and because it is in England my family and friends will be watching. Proud doesn't describe how I feel, it's more than that."

When in full flow with the bat he will captivate the crowds, but he could also be the victim of some aggressive hitting when he bowls. The experiment of bowling him at the end of the innings in Sharjah was not a success because his bowling is not yet good enough for the task.

"I don't think I bowled that well at times but I was often bowling at the death and at my pace on that pitch I had no room for error," Flintoff explained, "but if the rain falls it will be completely different. I just can't wait for it to start."

Both Inzamam and Jayasuriya became world champions. A good tournament from Flintoff and who knows what he could achieve with England?

THE TEAM: THE IF ONLY XI

Sachin Tendulkar (Ind) Simply the best batsman on earth

Adam Gilchrist (Aus) Wkt, a nerveless, explosive opener

Ricky Ponting (Aus) A dashing batsman and the best fielder around

Brian Lara (WI) An elegant genius has been restored

Aravinda De Silva (SL) Calm, adept, strokeplaying maestro

Michael Bevan (Aus) The best, if not entirely unselfish, manager of a runs chase

Hansie Cronje (SA) Shrewd batsman, tidy seamer, top captain

Shaun Pollock (SA) There may be a better all-rounder, but probably isn't

Anil Kumble (Ind) With the blond bombshell out of sorts, the leg-spinners' leg-spinner

Wasim Akram (Pak) Still swinging after all these years

Glenn McGrath (Aus) Economical, takes crucial wickets to order

WELL I DECLARE

ONLY one bowler has conceded more than 100 runs in a match, the Kiwi seamer Martin Snedden who, in 60-overs days, returned 12-1-105-2 against England in 1983. On a runs per over ratio Asantha de Mel's 10- 0-97-1 for Sri Lanka against Windies is the worst. Most economical was Mike Hendrick's 8-4-5-1 for England against Canada. Most miserly overall, only 2.46 runs an over, was Bishen Bedi.

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