At last Flintoff can see a big future

The afterthought has become a centrepiece. Now, says Derek Pringle, Big Fred might just fill a giant's shoes
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The Independent Online

India has long been a place where people have come to find themselves, though few can have done it so completely as Andrew Flintoff, England's budding all-rounder.

A year ago, an injury-prone Flintoff was looking at a career centred solely on batting. But young bodies heal well, and 12 months down the line, Flintoff has been England's secret bowling weapon, their heavy artillery, against Sachin Tendulkar and Co.

In three Tests, Flintoff, now 24, has bowled fast, with stamina and discipline, and is a certainty for the Test series in New Zealand next March. Yesterday, he got his reward with 4 for 50, the glory of a first five-wicket haul in Tests denied him only by Michael Vaughan's slick run-out to wrap up India's first innings. Not bad for an afterthought, who was called up from the Academy in Adelaide just five days before the First Test.

It is an unlikely transformation, and while there have been pace bowlers who have become Test batsmen, Bob Woolmer and Mark Butcher, it rarely works the other way around. Bowling is hard work and before this Test, his 12th, Flintoff's strike-rate was one wicket every 135 balls. At that rate, if he had taken all 20 wickets here he would not have done it inside the allotted five days.

But figures can mislead, and since remodelling his action by pointing his left foot down the pitch when he hits the crease, he has stayed fit long enough to look Test class. He has benefited from time with England's assistant coach, Graham Dilley, once a big blond fast bowler himself and the right man to smooth out Flintoff's raw action, which ismore hurl than pearl. But if grooved he is not, he has consistently been a handful to batsmen, even those as balanced and organised as Tendulkar, and even on the strip of baked porridge that was Ahmedabad.

In many ways he is the find of the tour. And yet, whenever anything bountiful is discovered in the undergrowth of English cricket, there is always a downside, and Flintoff's explosive batting, with which he first made his name, has suffered. His last four Test innings have lasted just 13 balls.

It is to be hoped that it is a temporary aberration, a glitch that will be put behind him during the one-day series here in January and then in New Zealand. If it is, and he continues to stay fit enough to bowl fast, England will have an all-rounder with the means to enjoy a career half as influential as that of Ian Botham, which is actually much more of a compliment than it sounds.

Before that, he has to learn to adapt quickly, as his team- mates have done. While it has been obvious that Big Freddie's only means of acquiring hands soft enough to kill spin are to soak them in Fairy Liquid, others have learnt to cope.

At the moment, there is nothing subtle about Flintoff on a cricket field, as his brainless dismissal in England's first innings here illustrated. For a man whose ball-striking has caused real fear among county spinners, his lazy clip to midwicket off Sarandeep Singh was tame. It also put pressure on his team-mates, who had they crumbled would have been lucky to make 250 rather than 336.

Cricket is a game as much of the mind as it is of instinct, and few survive at Test level without a generous measure of both. Although he can recognise his enemy, as Sourav Ganguly has found out via a barrage of bouncers and bon mots, Flintoff is so big and bulky that he looks daft – which may be why some believe he lacks brainpower.

They may be right, but as a recent meeting with his agent, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, shows, once an idea gets through, he is bright enough both to see, and make, the necessary changes. By standing at mid-off when he is bowling, Nasser Hussain has managed to achieve a similar response, but only because he is close enough to twiddle the right knobs.

It has taken time for the penny to drop, though. It was only at the end of the domestic season, in which Flintoff had again underperformed, that Chandler, tired of seeing his "investment" squander himself, sat him down and asked him what he wanted to do with his life. It sounds preposterous, but according to Neil Fairbrother, who was also present, the "heart to heart" shamed Flintoff into action. With only one-day cricket on his winter schedule, he asked Duncan Fletcher if he could be part of the Academy intake under Rod Marsh in Adelaide. He even offered to pay his own way, a gesture unheard-of in modern professional sport.

Flintoff's request was accepted, but not before Fletcher had noticed a huge improvement in attitude during the one-day series in Zimbabwe. According to Fletcher, a hungry look had appeared in Flintoff's eyes, and not only when lunch was on the table. Provided it stays there, and his batting gets back on track, England's perennial problem of finding an all-rounder could be solved.

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