Andrew Flintoff: 'There was an element of doubt about coming back. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't...'
In an exclusive interview, the England all-rounder tells Angus Fraser why he decided to return to India – and why subsequent events have vindicated his decision
Friday 19 December 2008
Andrew Flintoff has had security issues since his return to India but not of the type that would concern Reg Dickason, the England cricket team's security adviser.
At the England team hotel in Chennai, Flintoff had an armed guard standing outside his bedroom door for his entire stay. The presence of a fully tooled soldier standing outside your bedroom door can be quite disconcerting but over the years Flintoff has become accustomed to it. The problem for the England all-rounder was that the ringtone of the guard's mobile phone kept waking Flintoff from his well-deserved slumber.
"I hope he was there because I was next to a fire exit and that there was nothing more sinister behind it," said a chuckling Flintoff. "I had to have a word with him about his mobile phone because it kept waking me up. I was very polite to him though. I didn't shout at him coz he did look rather fierce and he had an impressive-looking gun on him.
"The only other time we have been wary came on the first night of the first Test. We went back to our rooms and all of sudden there were lots of loud bangs going off everywhere. I wasn't the only one to go to my window and have a look through the curtains to see what was going on. We were later told it is the wedding season in Chennai and they always let off fireworks at the end of them. It must have been a big wedding, coz the fireworks went off for 20 minutes."
Whether Flintoff would come back to India, following the England team's return home in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, was one of the main topics of discussion while Dickason collected the relevant security information. There were many who believed he would not return, although most of these judgements were based on hearsay and a couple of throwaway comments Flintoff made at a hotel bar in Bhubaneswar prior to England's initial departure. During the week at home he kept his counsel.
Chatting with Flintoff – after he had batted on Tuesday – on a litter-strewn terrace in the peaceful surroundings of the impressive Punjab Cricket Association Ground in Mohali, a suburb of Chandigarh, it was hard to believe the threat the England and India cricket teams are believed to be under. Security remains high – there were half a dozen armed, turbaned policemen standing within 10 yards of us as we spoke – with Chinook helicopters and military planes regularly flying overhead. These, however, had nothing to do with the presence of Flintoff and co; Chandigarh is 100 miles from the Pakistan border and is the home of a huge military airport.
"There was an element of doubt about coming back, I'd be lying if I said there was not," Flintoff admitted. "But people do make a lot of assumptions about what people are going to do, especially with the likes of myself and Harmy [Stephen Harmison]. It is extremely easy just to link the two of us together.
"The one thing I wanted to be sure of was that it was the correct decision. There were security reports taking place and they were going to take time, so I wasn't going to rush in and make my decision until I was presented with all the facts and had seen what was going to happen when we came back.
"The one thing I wanted to do was to come back to India to play cricket. It is an amazing place to come and play. But I just wanted to see everything in front of me. I am 31 years old now and I can make my own decisions, and that is what I wanted to do. I am comfortable with the decision I made when we sat down on that Sunday night in Abu Dhabi.
"My decision was based on the security advice we were given. We all have trust in Reg, who is our security adviser, and he is also our mate. But I would also not have wanted to have gone home and watched the rest of my team-mates come out here, so you come for them as well. On top of that you can't lose sight of the chance of playing cricket in India.
"The first Test showed why you want to play over here. We had it during the one-dayers too. The grounds were packed and the atmosphere was brilliant. People say that the Indian people do not turn up to watch Test matches but we saw that is not the case in the first Test. One of the reasons why you want to play cricket is to play in front of big crowds and in India it is the perfect place to do that. The atmosphere here is like no other place in the world. Having experienced it once you want to keep coming back."
Flintoff may enjoy playing in India but what took place in Chennai on Monday, when Sachin Tendulkar played one of his finest innings to take his side to a remarkable six-wicket victory, is the source of little gratification. In time he may look back on the Test with pride, because Tendulkar's display provided cricket with a very special moment, but such feelings are not currently at the forefront of his mind.
"The emotion I left Chennai with was disappointment more than anything," he said. "The way we played for the first three and a half days put us in pole position. OK, they have a magnificent batting line-up and it makes you think they have a chance but history suggests sides don't chase down 380 very often, if ever.
"It was the last session of the fourth day that cost us. The way Sehwag played gave them belief and they turned up the next day needing just 250, a total they could chase without taking too many risks. Even in the final session we thought we could win but it was a great effort from them in a great Test match.
"But at this moment in time I take no satisfaction from having taken part in a great game of cricket. We have had an average few weeks and it would be a great effort to turn it around and go back at 1-1."
Tendulkar is a hero of Flintoff's and it is the prospect of playing in the same team as the Little Master that makes the Lancastrian want to play for the Mumbai Indians, should an IPL contract come his way.
Deep down there will be a part of every cricketer that enjoys watching a great player perform a great deed, even if it is against the team he is playing for. When I was not bowling and fielding at mid-off I used to love watching Brian Lara bat, as long as he did not smash the ball at me. At times I was watching a genius at work and I had the best seat in the house. What more could you want? There is no disgrace when a sportsman of his pedigree gets the better of you.
"It is impossible not to admire him [Tendulkar] when you are out in the middle," Flintoff said. "He is a class player and a great role model for the game. His innings was a scriptwriter's dream. The lad from Mumbai, with everything that has happened there, scores a hundred to win and then dedicates it to everyone in the country. Thinking about it, it was probably inevitable it happened.
"Playing against him brings the best out of you in a lot of ways. The worrying thing for us is that he was getting better towards the end of that innings. You could see in the way he was playing he was back to his best.
"I enjoy bowling at him, as I did at the likes of Brian Lara. I think they bring the best out of you. Your margins for error are small; you have to bowl well to restrict them, never mind get them out."
Watching Flintoff bowl remains an uplifting experience, even for a boring old seamer like myself. It is his total commitment to the cause that brings a source of pride. He is unable to give anything but 100 per cent. But with that comes the constant fear that he is about to break down with a recurrence of the chronic ankle condition that threatened his career.
During last month's one-day series he had soreness in the joint, so I asked how it had responded to the five-day pounding he gave it in Chennai. "It's fine," he said. "I turned my ankle in the foot holes in Bangalore during the one-day series. I tweaked it in a different area to where I have had my problems.
"In the last Test I got a bit of discomfort from that once the foot holes had become worn and I started digging a bit of a hole. But I am confident in my ankle. I bowled 40-odd overs in Chennai, and I ran in hard for all of them. And apart from the bowling discomfort that you normally have I felt great."
"I am actually learning to enjoy bowling, and I never thought I'd say that. I didn't enjoy it in the past because it hurt. It hurt my back or my ankle. This is the first time when I have almost been pain-free and confident that I am going to hold together. I have more experience here but you don't change a great deal, you still aim to hit the top of off-stump. Sometimes you can get lost in theory, a good ball is a good ball.
"The time off was hard, especially when I went through it for the fourth time. My problem needed to be put into context too. I was not dying or ill, I just had a bad ankle. I think at times people can make too big a thing of it. I had time with my family, which was great, but I am a cricketer and once that was taken away from me it was as though part of me wasn't there. I wanted to get back on the field and when it was tough it was the thought of pulling on an England shirt that kept me going. When you have done it once you want to keep doing it."
I ask him where he believes he is in his career. "I don't know, the twilight," he said, laughing loudly. "No, I'm not sure. Performance-wise, I hope I am about to come into my pomp. I think the bowling is taking care of itself; it is getting better all the time. I am learning more. I am not learning new tricks but I have better knowledge what to do when I have the ball in my hand.
"From a batting point of view I am just desperate to score runs. I work hard at it and there is the odd glimpse that it is coming together. The one thing in Test cricket is that, having not played for such a long time, I am finding it hard to build an innings again. I need to score some proper runs, which I haven't done for a long time."
Jet lag may prevent England's cricketers from being good company at the lunch table on Christmas Day but the red wine may taste a little better should they square the series here in Chandigarh. If they are to do that, one feels it will require significant input from Flintoff with both bat and ball.
Flintoff in numbers
31.96 Flintoff's Test batting average after 71 Tests with 5 tons so far. At the same stage in Ian Botham's Test career he was averaging 36.8 and had 13 centuries to his name.
32.13 The cost in runs of each of Flintoff's 210 Test wickets. After 71 Tests, Botham's 297 Test wickets had come at a miserly 26.30.
2003 The year he stepped out of the shadows. Prior to the series against South Africa, he averaged 19.48 with the bat and 47.15 with the ball; in the 50 Tests since that series those figures are 37.31 (batting) and 29.33 (bowling).
590 The number of players who had won a Test cap for England when Flintoff made his debut in an eight-wicket win over South Africa at Trent Bridge aged 20.
47 The number of runs Jacques Kallis had scored when he was caught behind by Alec Stewart to become Flintoff's first Test victim.
Andrew Flintoff is an ambassador for Volkswagen, driving the luxury 4x4 Touareg. For more information visit www.volkswagen.co.uk. Volkswagen has a strong association with cricket, with partnerships with the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Professional Cricketers' Association and the UK's Test match grounds
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