Andrew Flintoff: England's cavalier reveals a sound head

Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff was at Royal Troon yesterday with Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, his manager. Chandler also manages no fewer than 12 of the golfers who have been contesting the 133rd Open Championship. Notable among them are Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, both playing pretty well at Troon, although if they were in the vein of form with their 14 clubs that Flintoff is in with his one, they would be battling for the claret jug between themselves.

Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff was at Royal Troon yesterday with Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, his manager. Chandler also manages no fewer than 12 of the golfers who have been contesting the 133rd Open Championship. Notable among them are Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, both playing pretty well at Troon, although if they were in the vein of form with their 14 clubs that Flintoff is in with his one, they would be battling for the claret jug between themselves.

England's most exciting cricketer has also been with Chandler to the US Masters at Augusta. He loves watching golf. He is, however, exceedingly poor at playing it. "I'm terrible," he tells me. "I take fresh air shots. The lads won't play with me. And my etiquette's bad as well. I get frustrated, I take chunks out of the course, I shout, I scream. I've joined Mere [Country Club, in Cheshire] and I played there the other day with Chubby. I took eight shots to get to the first green. There were about 15 people watching and I was that nervous. I was so nervous."

It is encouraging to find something that Flintoff can't do. He even represented Lancashire Schools at chess, for heaven's sake, so anyone who thinks him big on brawn and short on brain should think again. He is eloquent and astute, and in the 12 months since I last interviewed him, he has also acquired a kind of serene self-assurance.

Whether the growing self-assurance yielded the formidable run of form, or vice versa, even Flintoff is not sure. Tellingly, though, the England dressing-room no longer contains men such as Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart and The Independent's own Angus Fraser, whose reputations so impressed him when he made his international debut, aged 20. And another big personality, Darren Gough, is no longer a Test match bowler.

"It's different now," muses Flintoff. "I would never say anything bad about those guys, but the dressing-room is a different place. Also, I'm more mature as a person. I know myself better, and I know my game better."

The entire world of cricket is getting to know his game pretty well. We meet at Old Trafford, the day after he has clubbed a double-quick 85 for Lancashire against Yorkshire, in a Twenty20 match. Unfortunately, his thrilling knock was to no avail; Lancashire lost. For Flintoff that rather maintained a depressing recent trend of personal success, collective failure. His explosive batting illuminated the triangular series of one-day matches between England, New Zealand and the West Indies, yet England failed to reach the final.

Unlike some other cricketers - who privately adhere to the Geoffrey Boycott view that a fine individual performance is at the very least a source of inner satisfaction in the event of the team being defeated - Flintoff claims to have derived no inner satisfaction whatever from his personal welter of runs. He would say that, wouldn't he? But I believe him absolutely. If I might immodestly quote myself, when he scored a ton against South Africa in a valiant but losing effort at Lord's a year ago, I wrote that nothing became his exuberant innings "so much as the almost coy manner with which he acknowledged it. He raised his bat and took the plaudits of a packed house conspicuously aware, like the horn player on the Titanic, that there is limited value in virtuoso playing when the ship's about to go down".

So although he would give a lot to repeat that feat in the first Test match against the West Indies, beginning at Lord's on Thursday, I have little doubt that he would take a pair and an England win, rather than centuries in both innings and a defeat. He is manifestly a team man from top to toe, which of course is quite a distance. He stands 6ft 4in, and has a handshake to make Lennox Lewis wince. Which makes it faintly surprising that unlike a previous Lancashire hero of gigantic stature, Clive Lloyd, he uses a bog-standard bat.

"Yeah, he had about 10 rubbers, didn't he?" he says of Lloyd's enormous grip. "Amazing. I only have one. And my bat weighs about 2lb 8oz, 2lb 9oz, which is not heavy. I'm not that fussy. I've been with some lads when they choose their bats, and they want a bit of weight taking off here, a bit putting on there. Graham Thorpe sits in the corner of the dressing-room with a penknife and a file, filing the handle to the right shape. I'm not too bothered. Some players have a match bat, a net bat, a bowling machine bat. I've got one bat, and I do everything with it until it breaks. I get about two months out of each one."

His favourite image in his new book Andrew Flintoff - My Life In Pictures, is that of him standing at the crease waving a spectacularly splintered bat, broken in the act of hammering that memorable Test century against South Africa last summer.

Of course, Flintoff doesn't do non-memorable Test centuries. Yet it is worth noting, even as he continues to heave enormous sixes seemingly effortlessly, that he has worked hard at curbing his more cavalier instincts. "Mike Watkinson [the Lancashire coach] has been bowling at me endlessly off 17 yards, trying to modify a few things. I've a better awareness now how to construct an innings, and my shot selection is 60 per cent better than it was, although I still have my moments. I've been caught twice at mid-off in Tests this year.

"But I've also got a better awareness of where my off stump is. I leave a lot more - except with confidence rather than shutting my eyes hoping it's not going to hit. I also play the ball a lot closer to me. And if I hit it hard, it's invariably through good technique rather than just by bludgeoning it."

Unlike everybody else, Flintoff does not regard himself as an all-rounder. "I'm still a novice when it comes to bowling," he says. "I need to learn to take it away from the bat more consistently, I tend to push it in to right-handers and fall away. I'm not a natural bowler, unlike Steve Harmison. With me there's a lot of huffing and puffing rather than natural rhythm. The way Harmy approaches the wicket, he glides in, he's so light-footed, he's got it all.

"We played together for England Under-19s. I'd never seen him before he turned up for a plane to Pakistan, and when he bowled his first ball, I was fielding at slip. He bowled it at about 90mph and I took a slip catch, and I thought 'bloody hell, he's all right!' I'm not at all surprised by what's happened since. He's a once-in-a-lifetime bowler. I'm just a batter who bowls."

But at Lord's he might just be a batter who bats. Although he has bowled a few Twenty20 overs for Lancashire this week, he is not yet sure whether he is ready for the more rigorous demands of Test cricket.

Still, as a batsman and slip fielder alone the big man constitutes a considerable threat, as the West Indies know full well; he averaged 50 in the Test series in the Caribbean earlier this year, and continued to build on his reputation as one of the best slips since the man with whom he is constantly compared, Ian Botham. By the same token, Flintoff knows what to expect from the opposition.

"We beat them over there because we played fantastically well, and because everything went our way. There were some crucial passages of play we had to win, like the first Test in Jamaica, when Nasser [Hussain] and Mark Butcher batted. It was quick, they were getting hit, the ball was zipping around, but we came off having won that period of play. If it had gone the other way maybe we'd have gone 1-0 down.

"They're a strong side all round, as they proved in the one-dayers. Brian Lara, Chris Gayle, [Shivnarine] Chanderpaul, Tino Best, those are class players. Lara's 400 not out [in the Antigua Test] was chanceless. Amazing. You learn a lot from standing at slip. I've watched [Sachin] Tendulkar carefully, how he waits for the ball to come on to the bat, his selection of shots. With Lara I noticed how greedy he was, and how relentless. All the way to 400 his tempo never changed."

The great Trinidadian's tempo is still looking ominously smooth. But not even Lara's confidence with the bat can be greater than Flintoff's at the moment. I ask him to explain the difference that good form makes as a batsman takes guard.

"When you're in form, you look around and you see scoring options everywhere. You're not worried about being out first ball. The only person you feel you're battling against is yourself, against being over-confident. When you've been playing poorly you take guard and all you see are fielders. There are no gaps. You're thinking 'oh God', worrying about being out first ball."

It is said that Flintoff is susceptible to spin. He begs to differ. "A lot of that is on the strength of Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan], and he's got 520-odd other people out in Test matches. It's also because I kept getting out to spinners in India, but anyone bowling at me out there would have got me out. I scored 25 runs in five Tests. I wouldn't have got runs in an under-11s game, I was terrible."

He has faced the world's other fiendish spin bowler, Shane Warne, only once, for Lancashire against Hampshire when Warne was just back from injury and well below his best.

"But Murali I've batted against a lot. I played him a lot in the nets at Lancs, and I picked him, picked his straight one, picked his off-spinner. But over there [in Sri Lanka] this time he was a completely different bowler. He had the one that spun the other way. I watched the seam to pick the rotation of the ball, which is much easier with a white ball, by the way, because the seam's more prominent. But he was still too good for me. He's just a magician." And a chucker? "That's nothing to do with me. He's a great friend of mine and the game's better for having him."

In the book, Murali is similarly effusive about Flintoff - "a very brave cricketer" and "a lovely man" - as indeed are a number of those who have played with or against him. David Lloyd, his first mentor at Lancashire, even expresses the view that Flintoff should have been chosen ahead of Michael Vaughan when Hussain stepped down as England's Test captain.

Certainly, it seems increasingly likely that Flintoff will assume the England captaincy at some stage. He has been bedevilled since the start of his international career by comparisons with Botham. "There can never be another Ian Botham" is Flintoff's standard line on the subject. Which is indubitably true. But maybe, whisper it, he will succeed where Botham failed, by marrying his huge talent with the captaincy.

For now, though, he is simply happy to be meeting his own expectations, rather than anyone else's. "There was a period when I wasn't fulfilling my potential and it took a few harsh words from "Chubby" Chandler and Neil Fairbrother [his former Lancashire team-mate and Chandler's right-hand man] to get me back on track. Since then I haven't looked back. It's taken me a while to get to where I am, and it would have been nice to be doing this at 23 or 24, but I'm still only 26. My best years are ahead of me." Which is an exciting thought, especially as he has never played a Test match against Australia.

(Orion Books, £16.99)

Freddie makes a big hit four views of Andrew Flintoff

Neil Fairbrother

(former Lancashire team-mate)

"I thought that shirt-off thing in Mumbai was fantastic, but the tour management had a quiet word with him about it. The ECB marketing people missed a trick. They should have had that photograph on the front page of all their brochures for the following summer. It struck a chord with people who don't really follow cricket."

Graham Thorpe

(England batsman)

"That hundred at Christchurch was vital for him. It helped Freddie work out what batting's all about in a Test match. Even when he played a rare defensive stroke, he enjoyed it. Robin Smith could hit the ball hard, but in my time, no English batsman has hit the ball harder straight down the ground."

Mark Butcher

(England batsman)

"I had a disastrous run in the slips for England in 2003, when I kept shelling out catches. So many seemed to be off Freddie, yet he was always the first to come over and say 'never mind, mate'. He knows what it's like at slip. That's one of the many reasons why he's a top bloke."

David Lloyd

(former England coach)

"I backed him to be England captain when Nasser [Hussain] resigned. They always make the conservative choice and go for a batter, but you're better off with someone who also bowls and can get into the heads of the bowlers. Freddie has a very good cricket brain and he would have been adventurous."

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