Botham V Flintoff: The definitive verdict

At last England appear to have an all-rounder to match the talent and charisma of a superstar of the past. But is the comparison fair? The author, who has seen both at close quarters, offers a unique assessment of two great players. By Peter Roebuck
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Nor is it wise to cast any man born of woman as a saint, let alone a bluff all-rounder like Flintoff, a player intent on cracking skills as well as cricket balls, a man highly regarded in many quarters but not immune to the supposed charms of the tabloids and the destructions they represent. It has been the Lancastrian's fate and his glory, as it was Botham's, to arrive in a time of need and to perform such deeds that an entire sporting country responded with cheers of relief and joy. Inevitably both were taken to heart, turned into people's champions. Here was magnificence on the field, and chivalry as well. Immensely to their credit, both men count among the most sporting of competitors. An ancient craving had been fulfilled. Another Lancelot had been found.

Of course these players have characteristics in common. Both appreciate the simple pleasures to be found in country life, seem to expand in white clothes and relish the roars of the crowd. Over the next few days the younger man hopes to join his predecessor in the select band of cricketers remembered for the parts they played in the recovering of a little urn containing the remains of a twig. Despite their similarities, though, and a shared penchant for causing mayhem among antipodeans, England's two most imposing all-rounders of the last 30 years are cut from different stones.

Flintoff is a gentler, quieter, simpler man, able to live with the silences. Whereas Botham possessed a violence of temper and ferocity of will that allowed him to reach into himself for powers beyond the ordinary, Flintoff remains cerebral, prefers to rely on skill, prefers to think his way to success. Botham could let go, Flintoff stays in charge. Botham gambled, was prepared to buy wickets. Flintoff hardly ever bowls a bad ball. Botham relied on swing and surprise, Flintoff depends on pace and disguise.

Botham was captivated by the moment, Flintoff observes and plays his part. Fielding at long-off in his early days at Somerset, the older man saw a Pakistani batsman, Asif Iqbal it may have been, lift a ball, and in an instant he charged forwards like an enraged bull, dived in and took the ball in one hand an inch from the ground. It was an astonishing display of athleticism and ability. It was an even more remarkable piece of assessment and opportunism. Only old fogeys thought he might not make it, then and subsequently. It was 32 years ago but there it is, in the memory.

Contrastingly, Flintoff is essentially a reserved and orthodox cricketer. Naturally he celebrates a wicket or a hundred as much as the next man but he thinks his ways forwards. Whereas Botham defied the odds, he plays them. Whereas Botham relied on inspiration, he depends on power. Not that Botham lacked perception, strength and technique. He knew how to swing the ball but wanted to avoid death by analysis. Likewise, Flintoff responds to the cheers. Both are big men for big stages. Juxtaposition can mislead by neatness.

As performers, then, the all-rounders have their differences. Actually Flintoff is not a performer at all, but a player. both men were shaped by their experiences. Botham leapt into fame as a duck leaps into a pond. No sooner had he seen the water than he knew it was for him. And so it proved. Of course, it was an act of courage. Even as a teenager, Botham was not scared of exposure or the heat of battle. He pretended not to care that ancients dismissed him as a wild youth enjoying a run of luck, but it hurt. It is odd that man can at once challenge failure and fear rejection. Botham's ferocity towards enemies is founded on this fear. Nowadays, those who do not go along with him fall by the wayside.

Botham was lucky in his early days, and unlucky later. With Flintoff it has been the other way around, and accordingly his legacy will be healthier. Botham spent his formative years under the stewardship of Brian Close and Tom Cartwright, the heart and the brain, the cricketing version of Churchill and Atlee. He could not have been in better hands. Cartwright instructed his willing pupil in the crafts of swing and cut bowling, Close brought out the fighter in him.

Next Botham fell into the hands of Mike Brearley and Ken Barrington, another coupling of head and heart, two more fully developed men relishing the spirit of their young charge as he displayed an audacity they admired and had never known. Had Barrington survived a few more years, English cricket might have avoided the disturbances that followed , the rebel tours and the scandals. According to Graham Gooch and Ali Bacher, Botham nearly joined the rebels in South Africa. Certainly he missed a World Cup, preferring to play for Queensland, an arrangement that ended in tears. Barrington might have stopped this nonsense. Alas, he proved irreplaceable.

Playing too much cricket, lacking senior figures to respect, running too loose and without a central contract to lighten his load, Botham fell into bad habits. Like his impressive successor, he responds to his surroundings. When the atmosphere was poor, he was the worst offender. When the team was strong and purposeful, he became a mighty figure. But he could not himself make the necessary arrangements because he wanted to be loved by all and sundry. I never cared about any of that.

Ultimately Botham must be thanked for the towering contribution he made in his early years, and for the way he took cricket to the common man. Then he must be chastised for spoiling it all with the excesses that followed. Excesses that were partly to blame for the decline of English cricket during the 1980s.

In some respects Flintoff has been fortunate precisely because he was a late developer. For years he was dismissed as lazy and overrated, not least by those currently singing his praises loudest. He was overweight and for an unconscionable period failed to fulfil his manifest ability. Why? Perhaps humility lay behind his uncertainty, a suspicion that fame and glory might not suit him or anyhow that he was not ready for them. With his liking for country walks, holidays in Devon, marriage to a thoughtful and capable woman and friendship with the excellent Steve Harmison, he does seem to be an intelligent and sensitive man.

Far from plunging devil-may-care into the pond, Flintoff trod warily around its edges, half-preferring life on dry land, half-concerned about drowning in the murkiness. Perhaps, too, like Henry IV, he was haunted by the spectre of coming responsibility. Because Flintoff arrived later into the world of turbulent triumph, because he came not as an intrepid and impressionable youth but as an adult familiar, he has managed it altogether better than his predecessor. Indeed, he has been a source of strength not merely to the team but to the entire game, possibly even to the country as it recovers from its own bad spell.

Flintoff has been lucky, too, to find a sympathetic coach and a supportive captain. Years ago it was obvious that he had the makings of a formidable cricketer yet he seemed reluctant to take the plunge. Of course he was softer than Botham but that did not mean he was weaker. He, too, needed strong structures and characters around him. Many great players marry young. Their success lies not in their disregard of vulnerability but in their overcoming of it. That takes more guts than I, for one, ever possessed. Flintoff could not truly rise until he felt secure.

Duncan Fletcher has provided the stability, Michael Vaughan has offered the encouragement and Kevin Pietersen has become not so much his Sancho Panza as his release valve. Presumably his better half has reminded him that it is only a game. If doubt persisted on the latter point he had only to consider the contributions of his latest product, a creation more interested in a regular supply of appetising fodder than in the recapturing of the Ashes. But, then, not so long ago the same was said about the child's father, a man who in a short time has become a national sporting hero, a man deserving of the acclaim and suited to the role and likely hereafter to serve with distinction so long as he listens to the wise men around him and not the fools.

In 1981 Botham and company turned the tables on a disintegrating opponent. Since then English cricket has had nothing comparable to celebrate. Now it has an even better series and a more impressive champion. Flintoff is not merely helping to create a new legend; he can also play his part in ensuring that better times lie ahead. Taken as a whole the 1980s were a rotten time for English cricket. Regardless of events this week, there is no reason to suppose that this decade will also end badly.

What they say about each other

Flintoff on Botham

"Obviously, I'd like to achieve the things he's done in the game, but I've got to do it in my own way - he's a different cricketer to me."

Botham on Flintoff

"He's got lots of character, a lot of bottle and the whole side hinges on him at the moment. He could well go on to be one of the greats."

Peter Roebuck captained Ian Botham at Somerset in 1985